Transdisciplinarity and information science in earth and environmental science research



This poster addresses the theme of the conference “Thriving on Diversity- Information Opportunities in a Pluralistic World” by discussing transdisciplinarity and what this paradigm means to librarians and information scientists. Transdisciplinary research is a means to address research problems, especially those in complex systems (Hirsch Hadorn et al., 2008). The role of transdisciplinary research in earth and environmental sciences is explored, with particular attention to the challenges for information science researchers and professionals. Complex and global questions such as climate change may be best addressed using a transdisciplinary approach making the collaboration between scientists and information professionals more important. This collaboration is explored in relationship to DataONE (Observation Network for Earth), an NSF funded cyberinfrastructure project that supports the full data lifecycle for scientists in the diverse domains that are embodied in the earth and environmental sciences.

Transdisciplinarity, Information and Organizations

Understanding the way researchers collaborate to address scientific and societal problems is fundamental to understanding how we handle the complexity of knowledge that occurs across disciplines. The following table provides a taxonomy regarding the collaborative integration between disciplines (Rosenfield, 1992):

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As Aagaard-Hansen (2007) notes, the distinction that interdisciplinarity suggests greater integration than multidisciplinarity is well established (Friedman and Friedman 1985; Gilbert 1998; Kilburn 1990; Kline 1995; Maina-Ahlberg, Nordberg and Tomson 1997; McNeill 1999). The addition of transdisciplinarity to the taxonomy has also gained acceptance (Albrecht, Higginbotham and Freeman 2001; Maina-Ahlberg, Nordberg and Tomson 1997; McNeill 1999, Max-Neef, 2005).

The shared conceptual framework established by the transdisciplinary research approach provides tremendous value for understanding and addressing complex issues that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries (Nicolescu, 2002). However, transdisciplinarity is more than just a theory base; it can be argued that it is a paradigmatic attitude of building an integrative worldview (Allard, 2009). One of the first tasks for transdisciplinarity is to provide a perspective of how we organize our quest for knowledge and from this perspective to shed light on how disciplinary organization leads to certain interactions between disciplines. Transdisciplinarity or coordination between and amongst all disciplines leads to a perspective beyond the traditional disciplines. In this way, transdisciplinarity seeks to create a web of inter-relationships of disciplines existing in relationships across many “levels of reality and perception” (Nicolescu, 2002). Transdisciplinarity gives us the unique opportunity to allow disciplines to embrace their uniqueness while coordinating their actions in order to further human knowledge and thereby civilization. It gives us “both a body of thought and a lived experience,” (Nicolescu, 2002). Information science has recognized the artifacts of transdisciplinarity for decades, for example, examining the blurring of boundaries between disciplines (Geertz, 1983) and supporting the international movement toward more permeable intellectual borders (Borgman, 1990).

While transdisciplinary work is valued and has been productive, the mechanics of the information cycle within these collaborations is difficult both administratively and intellectually (Allard, 2001; Elzinga, 2008; Messerli and Messerli, 2008). One strategy is for information scientists and professionals to find and build domain agnostic solutions that can be used to address complex issues (Michener, 2009). The diagram below illustrates what is meant by a domain agnostic solution.

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Examining an Organization

Much can be learned by studying an organization that is operating in a transdisciplinary paradigm and is engaged in research of a complex system—earth and environmental sciences (Rind, 1999). Earth and environmental scientists produce research that is diverse in terms of scale, discipline, and observation type. Working with these data is essential to address environmental, social and technological challenges caused by climate variability, altered land use, population shifts, and changes in resource availability (e.g., food, water, and oil). An emerging area in this field is ecological informatics which incorporates both concepts and tools for the entire data life cycle including generation, processing, preservation, propagation, and understanding of ecological data, information and knowledge (Michener, 2009).

This poster addresses two research questions:

  • What does a transdisciplinary organization look like?

Transdisciplinarity exists when there is both cooperation and coordination between myriad disciplines (Max-Neef 2006). This means that a venture must both include other ways of thinking and also employ those ways of thinking in a coherent framework. Assessing an organization's or entity's ability to do this is a vital component of understanding a transdisciplinary organization

  • What are the roles for librarians and information scientists in a transdisciplinary organization? Studying these roles can help identify points of cooperation and coordination noted above.

To answer these research questions we examine DataONE (Observation Network for Earth), an emerging organization that focuses on multi-disciplinary observational data collected by biological (genome to ecosystem) and environmental (atmospheric, ecological, hydrological, and oceanographic) scientists, national and international research networks, and environmental observatories. We believe DataONE has the potential to be identified as a transdisciplinary organization because of its focus on the complex set of terrestrial and environmental systems.

The first research question is addressed by examining DataONE using the SEEK framework (Allard, 2001) and a new tool we are developing that we call the “transdisciplinary index (TI).” This tool provides a way to gauge whether an organization has the potential to be transdisciplinary, and if so, to determine if it is meeting that potential. The TI is still a work-in-progress at the time of this submission however a preliminary understanding is included in this document.

In developing the TI, we make the assumption that assessment is the organizational process of self-creating through reflection. This definition takes into account the body of literature regarding the “learning” (Senge 2006), “knowing” (Choo, 2005) or “living organizations” (Maturana 1976) which are based upon the concept that organization's structures are self-creating or that they are constantly learning and adapting—thereby changing the structure itself—to their environments (Maturana 1976). In a transdisciplinary organization the emphasis is on the general coherence of all knowledge, therefore it follows that the organization is constantly learning from its environment.

We believe many strategies can be developed to assess a transdisciplinary organization, however the nature of transdisciplinarity suggests that assessment data may be qualitative, quantitative, or spatial, so that the most complete picture may be presented. The TI primarily focuses on the quantitative and qualitative data sets as we have not yet begun to develop a spatial component. Therefore the TI assesses organizations on categories that approximate, in an empirical representation, the “pillars” that are the basis of transdisciplinarity. The categories that we feel are inclusive of the transdisciplinarity “pillars” are leadership/governance, communication, engagement, purpose, integration, adaptability, and context. Below are brief notes about each of these categories.

Leadership in transdisciplinary organizations is expected to build consensus and to empower individuals to set and achieve goals that help both them and the organization (Capra, 2006; Stead & Stead 2004). Therefore leaders and governing bodies are not to be seen as dictators or central planners but as “designers, stewards, and teachers” (Stead and Stead 2004).

Communication is holistic and refers to all communication: both intra-organizational communication and external communication. Communication should be open and dynamic (Capra, 2006). Ideas should readily passed within the organizational community and people should not be afraid to share and receive constructive feedback from outside the organization—which can then be used to infuse more communication. In this way there is understanding of the unity of all knowledge and the organization seeks to promote this through its community (Carroll, 2005)). The content that is being communicated may be in terms of reports and publications as well as emotional content such as shared experiences and friendly conversation, which builds a sense of community.

Engagement in the TI context refers to the ways people are involved in an organization in its operations, and implementation. It is closely related to communication since open communication encourages engagement.

The organization is guided by a purpose or raison d'etre that the organization exists. But purpose should not be static and unchanging even if the artifacts that represent it are (Capra, 2006). People from all facets should be involved with defining an organization's purpose even if it is the governance that helps to coalesce those people around proximate that imbue the spirit of this purpose. The purpose is something that is to be clear so that it provides a means of structure that unites people to share bonds in the organization (Carroll, 2005). Purpose is important because it gives the organization a distinct sense of uniqueness, which is important in order to develop a balance between the organization and the world outside of the organization.

We use the term, integration, to describe the way that the organization is connected into the world surrounding it. Integration in this context examines how well the organization understands and values the unity of all knowledge—an organization that does this well will seek out deep relationships with other disciplines in order to foster and promote both coordination and cooperation.

Adaptability is the ability of the organization to change with its environment and to adapt across all levels of reality to new situations based on reflection of their experiences (similar to concepts in Choo's work). Thus an organization must be open to change and relish it as an opportunity to learn more about itself—in many ways an organization should actively seek out experiences that may cause it to healthily change and mature (Stead & Stead, 2004).

The category we have named context is the most difficult to measure and refers to how the organization views its sense of self. Context is important because it directly addresses the issue of how an organization perceives both its history and its future—or in other words it helps glean the scale that the organization uses to measure the world. In this way context is extremely important because it deals with how people in the organization collectively use their imaginative power of the human mind to envision what the past was like and what they want or don't want the future to be—both are possible inspirations behind purpose. Context perhaps can best be thought of as the organization elucidating upon what it thinks its existence “means.”

We have developed the following definitions for each TI category so that we could identify specific indicators:

  • Leadership/governance: The ability and desire of governing or directing entities and individuals to help articulate, coalesce, and inspire people to rally around a common purpose while using resources in a sustainable manner.

  • Communication: The means of conveying implicit and explicit messages in order to share ideas and thoughts with others inside and outside the organization.

  • Engagement: The ways people are involved in an organization in its operations, reflection, and implementation.

  • Purpose: shared common vision of why the organization exists.

  • Integration: connectivity of disciplines, organizations, and communities including the capacity for increased engagement.

  • Adaptability: the ability of an organization to change with its environment

  • Context: the way the organization sees itself fitting into both its “biography” and broader histories

The second research question is addressed by reviewing how librarians and information scientists are already engaged in DataONE, and by examining how they may be further engaged in the process of facilitating information flow so that an organization can meet its transdisciplinary potential.