The Challenges of a Large Interdisciplinary Project (guest post)

Over the past decade or so we’ve seen philosophers win sizable grants for projects involving multiple teams of researchers with different disciplinary and institutional homes.

What are some of the challenges involved in keeping such a project going, and how might they be addressed?

In the following guest post, Keely Khoury and Peter J. Hundt, both at the University of Minnesota and both part of the support staff for philosopher Alan C. Love‘s big “Agency, Directionality, and Function: Foundations for a Science of Purpose” project, discuss some of these challenges, focusing on publishing—especially open access publishing.

[Max Ernst, “The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells, the Dappled Fire Damps, and the Echinoderms Bending the Spine to Look for Caresses”

The Challenges of Publishing Open Access Work from an Interdisciplinary Research Project
by Keely Khoury and Peter J. Hundt

About the Project

The “Agency, Directionality, and Function” project, led by Alan C. Love, brings together 130 researchers from 50 different institutions, divided into 24 teams, with the teams grouped into seven clusters, each with a slightly different angle of inquiry into one of the project’s three conceptual themes: agency, directionality, and biological function.

With its large size and complex structure, the project faces various challenges on the way to its goal of “advancing fundamental theoretical and philosophical concepts for goal-directed phenomena with the specific aim of operationalizing them for theoretical and empirical inquiry.”

Commitment to Open Access

The project also aims to “foster new lines of scientific research based on an increased array of conceptual possibilities, distinctive formal modeling strategies, and next-generation experimental platforms for the discovery, observation, and manipulation of purposive phenomena” in biology and beyond.

To do this, the project was committed to making all publications, whether conceptual, theoretical, or empirical, freely accessible. That commitment extends to research materials that include protocols for experimental platforms, software code for computational modeling, and mathematical proofs for formal models. Given that project participants have expertise in fields that range from cancer research and evolutionary and developmental biology to paleontology, ecology, computer science, philosophy and more, the details of this commitment are complicated (to put it mildly).

The idea is great. Accomplishing it is the challenge.


The size of this cohort program allowed us to observe and support the publishing process for team members in a range of fields, in several nations, and at varying stages in their academic careers. The project budget included money explicitly for paying Open Access fees and for support staff to help connect and guide teams through structured interdisciplinary interactions.

Starting from this relatively privileged position did not, however, simplify significantly the processes required to publish work open access.

The hurdles we experienced were related to several sources: a feeling of ambivalence towards publishing work open access because of the high cost; the variety of complexities of processes between titles and fields of study; and the efficiency and efficacy of tracking outputs, particularly as articles moved from pre-print to final versions.

Knowledge of the Process

From the start, there were differing levels of awareness of open access publishing across the disciplines represented by the scholars in the cohort program. Many of the scientists had at least some experience with or knowledge of what was involved in publishing their work open access, with a few contributing to upwards of 25 papers that were made freely available in the two years preceding the start of this project.

Scholars in the humanities were less likely to have had similar experiences. An interim review of the papers published open access by members of the cohort program found that more than one-third came from only two areas of science, with the arts and humanities and social sciences each comprising roughly five per cent of the number of publications. The speed at which publishing in the various fields occurs is part of this difference, but not all of it.

Part of what makes this project special is the funding dedicated to publishing open access. Both the central project management team and each of the 24 teams comprising the cohort program were granted funds specifically for this. That is a rarity. To help make best use of these dedicated funds, we ran an internal information campaign, and dedicated a staff member to shepherding teams towards and through open access publishing.

A resource that we discovered to be incredibly helpful in our work navigating different systems and tracking outputs is institutional librarians. Likely a vastly underutilized source of knowledge, the librarians we worked with readily shared their expertise gained through their experience of working with publishers and publishing processes.

One of the tips they shared with us is to have authors retain the copyright to their work as a way of publishing open access after initial publication in a journal. Of the scholars we spoke to in the cohort program, some didn’t know about this option or, if they did, thought it was too time-intensive to be useful.

Having institutional templates for negotiating this type of ownership would go a long way towards reducing the burden on individual scholars. Educating graduate students in the publishing process, with particulars for their field of study, would also strengthen their ability to contribute meaningfully and purposefully to the accessible dissemination of their work.

Cost and Time Challenges

Even when researchers are convinced of the importance of publishing open access, the current systems are not easily understood or traversed. For one of our program’s open access publishing projects, legal hurdles proved to be particularly time-consuming.

A book edited by a cohort program participant, and containing chapters written by others in the program, was nearing completion when we sent the first query about publishing it open access. Because the editor already had a contract in place with the publisher, the termination of the original contract, and writing of a new one, took almost nine months to complete. That followed many months of back-and-forth communication regarding the general feasibility of, and financial responsibility for, publishing an entire book this way.

Ultimately, it took 19 months to publish the book open access and was only possible because of the funds the program had already ringfenced for this type of publishing. For authors without such explicit financial means and institutional support, the time it took to publish the work in this way would most likely be considered not worth the expenditure and certainly unattainable economically.

Tracking Outputs

Tracking the publications of the teams and their members has proven to be one of the more complex and time-consuming tasks of the program, with much of the work requiring regular manual checks. The proliferation of online search tools and storage programs meant a lot of trial and error in our efforts to find a combination of systems that most accurately tracked publications from project participants. The diversity of fields encompassed by these teams, and sheer number of researchers involved, made the undertaking particularly complicated and involved weekly checks of at least six preprint servers. Now, thankfully, that task has become easier thanks to Scopus’ preprints search tool that collates data into a single space. We also set up at least one digital search alert for each of the 130 scholars. This entails a continual sifting of results to weed out oddities that the algorithm searches present to us.

Ensuring that our project-wide bibliography does not include predatory journals adds a further layer of manual labor to the process. Disagreement over the categorization of certain journal titles necessitates an element of subjectivity in what to include or exclude in our record keeping.

As well as publishing written papers, part of the project’s pursuit of open science includes sharing de-identified data and research materials in a publicly accessible repository. The purpose is to make it possible for an independent researcher to reproduce the reported results. This is an area of work within the project that is still in progress as we consider ways in which to record most efficiently the existence of these datasets and note to which project they relate.

Interactions and Reproducibility

As an attempt to cultivate a new type of research community, the mix of philosophers, theoreticians, and experimentalists that comprise the members of this cohort program are scholars at different stages in their careers. That, along with the organization of opportunities for interaction, discussion and feedback across disciplines, provides participants with an interactive peek into areas of research that many would otherwise not have the time or chance to access.

Another way this project attempts to stimulate scholarly change through thematic working across disciplines is to provide participants with a monthly list of publications by members of the cohort program. That list allows researchers to scan titles of work and dip in and out of a mix of ideas that otherwise would most likely be unfound amidst the general, and growing, deluge of academic publishing and data production. Organizing opportunities for serendipitous connections sounds counterintuitive, but reducing the strain on a scholar’s time makes it easier for them to identify relevant, interesting and inspirational work by others, in their own field and beyond.

Lastly, without the project’s funding dedicated to open access publishing, the relatively high number of papers from cohort program participants published in this way would no doubt have been less. The elaborate heterogeneity we encountered throughout the academic publishing industry as we developed processes to encourage, support and track open access publication makes the record of this work an important foundation for future development and improvements, within publishing and interdisciplinary research projects. The program’s attempt to build common vocabularies for data, models and concepts and establish reporting standards further cultivates the reproducibility of large-scale interdisciplinary work formats.


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Shaun Dennistoun
Shaun Dennistoun
1 month ago

You firstly just need to budget full gold open access fees in the grant costings and that takes care of that. As for managing a big grant – just use Google calendar and make sure to include enough teaching buy out that you can keep on top of your promised deliverables. And if possible, opt for some strategic virement between costings headings which can free up funds if needed.