Why do we need collaborative research? It is needed because of the complex and holistic nature of any human phenomenon. In order to advance the common good, we need to learn from each other and work together towards a better understanding of human experience and behavior (Gergen, 2016; Wong, in press).
My Experience in Collaborative Research
Personally, I have been involved in various forms of collaborative research efforts for over 30 years. I spent five years as a member of the Panel on Biological and Behavioral Sciences in the National Institute of Mental Health. I also worked as a member of the Advisory Council on Aging for the Federal Government of Canada for three years, working with experts in gerontology from both the medical and social sciences. Since 2000, I have been the organizer of the Biennial International Meaning Conferences and Meaning Summits for the International Network on Personal Meaning, working closely with psychologists and philosophers of different theoretical stripes. Recently, I have been involved in an interdisciplinary collaborative research group funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
The above collaborative experiences have given me unique insights into the problems and promises of interdisciplinary research. As a result, I have learned a few useful lessons. I hope that the following proposed guidelines will help facilitate collaborative research.
The Humble Science Approach to Research
Sir John Templeton’s (1998) humble approach to science needs to be the foundation for all collaborative research. Templeton believed that humility is “a corrective to the parochialism” (p. 2) and the “gateway to understanding” that “open[s] the door to progress” (p. 44).
Templeton’s wisdom is more relevant than ever before in today’s age of acceleration and globalization because human adaptation depends on our capacity for diversity and pluralism (Friedman, 2016). While traditional academic departments and different schools of thought contribute to parochialism and tribalism, intellectual humility contributes to cross-fertilization and pluralism.
Real progress in both academic research and social change depends on breaking down the traditional artificial barriers and encouraging interdisciplinary research from different perspectives, as the Templeton Foundation has advocated from its inception.
At the heart of this visionary enterprise is the virtue of intellectual humility. It is imperative that each researcher involved in collaborative research adopt an attitude of humility and respect researchers from other disciplines. In other words, each discipline has something unique to contribute and no discipline can claim to be superior to others.
For example, it is helpful for philosophers to question and examine conceptual issues in psychological research on happiness and virtue (Kristjánsson, 2010), but less helpful for philosophers to tell psychologists how to measure virtue (Curren & Kotzee, 2014), because test and measurement represents an area of specialty in psychology (Allen & Yen, 2002; Crocker & Algina, 1986).
Similarly, it is helpful for psychologists to provide empirical evidence or conduct experimental tests of philosophical ideas, but unhelpful for psychologists to question moral philosophers’ appeal to Aristotle or Aquinas as their authority for research.
Even within the discipline of psychology, I often see smugness in quantitative researchers, who are confident in the superiority of their research rigor and their paradigm of truth claim. I also see smugness in qualitative researchers, who are confident in the superiority of their deep insights into human nature and experience.
Simple logic suggests that the humble science approach can achieve a more complete account of any human phenomenon through a mixed methodology of combining quantitative and qualitative research than either approach alone.
No Room for Useless Debate
Debate, even heated debate, is often unavoidable when different researchers truly believe in the correctness of their approach. Such differences can be best resolved through a detached rational discussion. For example, we can say, “At least we can start by agreeing on a working definition, or on some established principles and findings as the common ground.”
A useless debate is one that provokes an argument for argument’s sake without resolution. For example, at one of the Meaning Summits I organized, the central theme was, “How do you define and work with the meaning-in-life construct in your clinical practice?” Instead of doing what he was invited to do at the Summit, which was to present something about his research and practice related to meaning, one prominent clinician argued that even Hitler could claim to have lived a meaningful life. He did so against his own clinical practice, which was based on logotherapy—a therapy that emphasizes ethical responsibility to prevent another holocaust (Wong, 2016c). His provocative statement not only triggered a heated debate among panel members, but also angered someone in the audience who accused him of supporting a mass murderer.
Certainly, one may play the devil’s advocate as a rhetorical device to stimulate deeper discussion and arrive at some positive conclusion. In the above case, that clinician only succeeded in derailing the program from showcasing the best practices in working with meaning to a useless and meaningless debate about a hypothetical case.
Procedure matters—it can either facilitate or hinder collaborative research. Ideally, all meetings of collaborative research should be moderated by a neutral and experienced person who can exercise the authority and discipline to ensure that the group discussion stays on target.
A good moderator can also ensure that every participant has an equal chance to speak. When the group discussion is dominated by a few aggressive participants to the exclusion of others, the moderator has lost control.
Another procedural consideration is to have someone from each discipline to rotate as the moderator. This would avoid the bias wherein a moderator favors members of his/her discipline at all the group meetings.
Finally, the moderator needs to maintain a safe and trusting environment for collaborative research. He or she needs to intervene when he or she sees that one member is being humiliated or unfairly attacked by a group of critics. He or she also needs to prevent open group discussion from degenerating into an intimate conversation among a small in-group to the exclusion of others from other disciplines, for the simple reason that cliquishness or parochialism is incompatible with building group cohesiveness in interdisciplinary research.
Levels of Collaboration
Collaboration does not happen automatically by simply putting a group of researchers from different disciplines in the same room. They need to commit to the idea of interdisciplinary collaboration.
There are three levels of collaboration. At the lowest level, each researcher may benefit a little bit from their interactions with other researchers, such as gaining a little understanding of how other disciplines approach the same topic.
At the intermediate level, members in the collaborative project are interested in learning from each other and there is at least some acknowledgment or citation of each other’s research. Thus, one’s own research is enriched and broadened because of cross-fertilization with other disciplines.
At the highest level, all members of the research team contribute their expertise or specialty to a common project and co-create a new body of knowledge, which could not have been accomplished without a great deal of intellectual struggle and back-and-forth mutual critique. In the end, such transdisciplinary research will result in a joint high-impact publication that will strengthen each of the disciplines involved, contribute to general knowledge, and benefit humanity.
Self-Transcendence Research and Outcome Assessment
My own research on self-transcendence (ST) (Wong, 2016a, b, c) can be a project for the highest level of interdisciplinary collaborative research. My dream team of researchers (*) in such a project will include the following:
- Developing a conceptual framework for interdisciplinary collaboration based on a relational, dialectic, and humble approach (Barrett*, 2011; Gergen*, 2016; Helminiak*, 2016; Wong*, 2016d).
- A conceptual understanding of the varieties of ST experiences—both the good and the bad (Bonner & Friedman*, 2011; Haidt*, 2012; Wong, 2017; Yaden* et al., 2016).
- Psychological measurements of ST as a motivational state (Wong, 2016c) and as a personal trait (Cloninger*, Svrakic, & Przybeck, 1993).
- ST as an emotional state of awe (Schneider*, 2004, 2009; Shiota*, Keltner*, & Mossman, 2007; Yaden et al., 2016).
- ST as an end value (Emmons*, 2005; Schwartz*, 1992, 1994).
- A neuro-scientific basis of ST (Haidt, 2012; Lipton*, 2015; Marsh*, 2016; Newberg*, D’Aquili, & Rause, 2002).
- ST as one of the key components of religious and non-religious spirituality (Ferrer*, 2002; Hill* & Pargament, 2003; Paloutzian & Park*, 2014).
- ST as the cornerstone for morality and virtue ethics (Carr, Arthur, & Kristjánsson*, 2017; Snow*, 2014).
- ST as a key component in palliative care (Breitbart*, 2017; Ellermann & Reed*, 2001)
- ST in developmental stages (Levenson*, Jennings, Aldwin, & Shiraishi, 2005; Reed, 2014; Svetlova*, Nichols, & Brownell*, 2010).
- ST according to Buddhism and Eastern traditions (Ivtzan* & Lomas*, 2016; Kesebir, Dahl, Davidson*, & Goldman, n.d; Lomas, 2016).
- ST as the foundation for second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0) and a kinder, gentler society (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2016; Wong, 2011; Wong, Ivtzan, & Lomas, 2016).
Such concerted effort from different disciplines in co-creating a new body of knowledge of ST is more likely to be impactful than separate efforts by individual researchers in their respective disciplines.
The outcome of this collaborative research can be measured by joint publications in monographs, peer-reviewed journals, conferences, public lectures, graduate level courses, and the extent of coverage by traditional media and social media. The impact factor can be measured by citations in professional journals and mass media.
Common Pitfalls in Collaborative Research and How to Avoid Them
The above summarizes some of my own experiences and recommendations. I know that other researchers may also have some unsatisfactory experiences in collaborative research. For example, Professor Kristján Kristjánsson, Deputy Director of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, has a lot of experience in doing cross-discipline research. He has identified the following issues as potential pitfalls:
- Failing to clarify whether the focus of the collaborative work is normative, descriptive, or both;
- Failing to clarify whether the collaboration aims at interdisciplinarity or full trans-disciplinarity;
- Failing to ensure at the beginning that all parties are familiar with each other’s methodologies and background assumptions;
- Failing to making sure that researchers share broadly reconcilable understandings of basic theoretical concepts underlying the research; and
- Not being able to identify publication outlets for interdisciplinary research findings which may “fall between two stools.”
Fortunately, all the above pitfalls can be avoided if the organizer is aware of them and takes the necessary preventive steps. Otherwise, we will end up with pseudo collaborative research, in which each participant uses the opportunity to present his or her own research with no interest in listening to one another.
Another form of pseudo interdisciplinary research is that one discipline is over-represented by five people from the same school of thought, while another discipline is represented by five people from five different theoretical positions; this kind of arrangement will only result in parochialism.
In contrast, genuine collaborative research ensures that different disciplines and different theoretical perspective are evenly represented. More importantly, it also ensures that all participants make a commitment to adopt the humble science approach to learn from and listen to other researchers. This should be the minimum commitment, regardless of the level of collaboration.
Even though there may never be a consensus with respect to epistemology, methodology, and ethics because of different cultural presuppositions, intellectual humility makes it possible to find some common grounds for collaborative research for the human good (Helminiak, 2016).
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