13 February 2023

Barriers to interdisciplinarity: an early career researchers’ perspective on urban climate governance

People in orange vests planting small plants in an urban garden
This article was first published at the Earth System Governance website. | Text: Devon Cantwell-Chavez, Jose Manuel Leal, Anne Bach Nielsen, and Marielle Papin. | Photo: Earth System Governance

About a year ago, our Cities in Global Climate Governance early career researchers’ (ECR) group took up a project to begin reviewing all of the contemporary global urban climate governance literature. For this project, we looked to integrate all disciplines discussing climate governance. Yet, we soon realized concepts like policy and governance varied substantially across disciplines. In grappling with these differences, we reflected on interdisciplinarity and its challenges, especially for ECRs and scholars in the Global South who often lack interdisciplinary training. This inspired us to hold an online innovative session in the framework of the ESG Toronto conference on October 20, 2022.

In our session, we convened a panel of editors from the Global North and the Global South to engage in more specific questions related to interdisciplinarity, including

  • What are the challenges for scholars in the Global South in generating interdisciplinary analysis?
  • What is the best advice you would give an ECR working with interdisciplinary approaches?

The main theme of the 2023 ESG conference, “Bridging Sciences and Society for Sustainable Transformations,” makes discussing the challenges of publishing interdisciplinary research all the more relevant.

Below, we share the structural challenges highlighted during the session as well as the advice given by editors to ECRs and scholars in the Global South seeking to publish interdisciplinary research. We also present ways in which we think journals and university departments could accommodate the next generation of researchers.

Challenges of early career researchers and scholars in the Global South

  • Choosing a discipline while embracing interdisciplinarity: ECRs need to brand themselves as coming from one discipline (especially when on the job market). At the same time, there are new academic standards which demand engaging in interdisciplinary research and showing an ability to connect different disciplines.
  • A general lack of training: ECRs are often not trained to do interdisciplinary work. They need to gain practical tools to engage in a discussion with scholars from other disciplines, or with practitioners (which may be understood as transdisciplinarity).
  • The difficulty of initiating collaborations: It is harder for ECRs to start co-authorship and collaboration.
  • Added challenges of scholars in the Global South: There is generally a lack of interdisciplinary tradition (or a focus on disciplines) and a subsequent lack of training in interdisciplinary methods and work.

Advice to ECRs and scholars in the Global South

  • Study the journal’s profile: ECRs should make sure its aims and scope or its editorial board value interdisciplinary studies.
  • Reflect on the relevance of interdisciplinarity for your project: Researchers should assess the contribution that the interdisciplinary dimension of their research might have. One way to do it is to think about one’s research question: does it call for an interdisciplinary lens?
  • Seek to connect the disciplines you are using in your research: It is important to make these disciplines talk to each other. However, ECRs should be careful not to seek to connect too many disciplines or disciplines that are too far from one another. They could consider conducting strategic interdisciplinarity (e.g. connecting disciplines from social sciences).
  • Define the interdisciplinary dimension of your work: What is interdisciplinary in that work? The theoretical framework? The methods? The sources of data (e.g. having both spatial and social data)? What kind of problem is being solved? What is the outcome?
  • Make sure of the coherence of your paper: ECRs should be careful to connect all their analytical tools together.
  • Value a broad literature review: They should read widely to embrace interdisciplinarity.

Challenges related to journals

  • Journals are stuck in a publishing paradox: Even in journals with interdisciplinary focuses, academia continues to be connected and structured through disciplinary norms (e.g. which methods to use, how to build a theory section). However, journals, foundations, research networks and conferences increasingly emphasize interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity as core to dealing with global environmental challenges.
  • There is little consensus in the academic community around definitions: Many journals (and even editors within journals) operate on varying definitions of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. This leads to a lack of cohesion in the vision for journals, editors, and reviewers when reviewing and deciding on interdisciplinary manuscripts.
  • Journal leadership is often trained within interdisciplinary boundaries: As interdisciplinary training programs are still quite new, many people in positions of leadership at journals were trained within a particular scholarly discipline, which shapes their perception of manuscripts, including what literature they see as critical, which questions should be studied, and much more.

Advice to journals on increasing interdisciplinarity

  • Establish connections with scholarly networks: Many interdisciplinary research networks, such as ESG and the Cities in Global Climate Governance group, have emerged to allow scholars to connect with each other and co-generate research. In addition to their functionality, these networks foster partnerships between scholars from different disciplines, sectors and across the Global South and North. Connecting with these networks to build diverse reviewer pools or to encourage creation of special issues will help enhance interdisciplinary research agendas at journals.
  • Increase transparency in editorial and review processes: Journals have a long way to go in understanding what interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work means. They can play a role in making explicit how such work is reviewed and judged and allow for a degree of experimentation in terms of format, structure and style (not to be mistaken for quality). This transparency, particularly in Global North journals, will allow ECRs and Global South scholars to better understand the publication process and expectation for publication.

Challenges related to departments

Departments play a critical role in training the next generation of scholars as well as shaping the current state of scholarship within disciplines. The structure, culture, and policies of many departments can either enhance or discourage interdisciplinary research. We identify several challenges stemming from departments:

  • Restrictive policies for tenure and enrollment: Many departments discourage co-authorship among faculty by favoring single-authored pieces. They may also prohibit or restrict students from training outside of their home departments.
  • Departments may favor one approach or method: Departments help shape the culture of disciplines through their training and support for faculty. Some may discourage the use of different approaches or methods, which decreases the cultural support for interdisciplinary training.

Advice to departments on increasing interdisciplinarity

  • Incentivise co-authorship: One hold up for many scholars when it comes to taking risks on interdisciplinary research is concern over how departmental policies may count co-authored scholarship. Adjusting tenure and other departmental policies to encourage scholars to engage with interdisciplinary work with multiple authors will encourage more collaboration and interdisciplinary scholarship to emerge.
  • Encourage and support cross-departmental training: Ensuring that departmental policies encourage students to take courses outside of their home department supports interdisciplinary training and creates natural opportunities for future cross-collaboration.
  • Host interdisciplinary workshops: Departments should encourage faculty and students to organize workshops where researchers can gather, discuss, and create communities of practice. Departments should make concerted efforts to diversify invitations and ensure that there is a balance in geographic representation and methodology.


Interdisciplinary work may offer important contributions to research, and especially to environmental research. Yet, we need to acknowledge the particular challenges faced by ECRs and scholars in the Global South when it comes to conducting and publishing that type of research. It is crucial that international research networks such as Earth System Governance participate in breaking the barriers faced by the most vulnerable researchers and help them publish their interdisciplinary work. These efforts will allow for the diffusion of multi-perspective research, which is necessary to address today’s exceptional times. We hope that, through its main theme, the 2023 conference will make a step in that direction.