January 20, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: capitalizing black and white & multidisciplinary vs. interdisciplinary vs. transdisciplinary vs. intradisciplinary

Posted in capitalizing black and white at 10:32 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Capitalizing white and black

A reader writes:

I usually do not capitalize black/white when referring to racial categories – is there a rule about this?

The easy answer is ‘yes.’ But the reality is that, yes, there are LOTS of rules about this, and they conflict with one another.

Let’s start with the style manuals: Saying ‘no’ to capitalization of white and black when referring to race are: the American Medical Association, the Associated Press, the New York Times, Stanford, and Harvard. And coming down on the side of ‘yes’ to capitalization are the American Psychological Association, the venerable Chicago Manual of Style, and the University of Pittsburgh.

That clears it up, right?

And there are tons of discussions on the topic in the blogosphere (oh my, I never thought I would use that word-goes to show that words evolve, and we do, too.) Some of the discussions are very interesting, saying, for instance, that black should be capitalized out of respect or that it shouldn’t be capitalized because it is merely a word of color.

So what’s a writer to do?

My advice is, if you a writing a manuscript for a journal, to go online and see what convention that particular journal uses, and adopt that. If you are not writing for a particular journal, the choice is yours. Think about whom you are writing for and how they will respond. If you still can’t decide, my recommendation is to go with the lower case (sorry, Pitt) since that convention is a lot more widespread than is capitalization.

Tip 2: Multidisciplinary vs. interdisciplinary vs. transdisciplinary vs. intradisciplinary

A reader writes:

When do you use multidisciplinary vs. interdisciplinary vs. transdisciplinary vs. intradisciplinary?

Yuck. The jargon abounds, and it is really hard to keep up. I remember when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) first started talking about multidisciplinary research, we were all shaking our heads and asking, “What’s the difference between multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research?” We were all familiar with interdisciplinary, but multidisciplinary was new to us. At least, we thought we knew what interdisciplinary was.

It is important to remember that the meanings differ in different fields. For example, in the setting of health care, multidisciplinary treatment means that health care providers from different disciplines, such as pharmacists, psychologists, social workers, nurses, all individually consult the patient and share their opinions with the treating physician (either independently or as a group) but the final decision is left up to the treating physician (and the patient in a patient-centered model). Interdisciplinary treatment would mean that the providers would meet with the patient together and work together (with the patient) to develop a treatment plan.

In research, the NIH Roadmap was our guide for differentiating multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research. Here is what the Roadmap had to say back when it was introduced in 2003:

Health research traditionally has been organized much like a series of cottage industries, lumping researchers into specialty areas, where their efforts remain disconnected from the greater whole by artificial barriers constructed by technical and language differences between different disciplines and departmentally-based specialties. But, as science has advanced over the past decade, two fundamental themes are apparent: the study of human biology and behavior is a wonderfully dynamic process, and the traditional divisions within health research may in some instances impede the pace of scientific discovery.

Over the years, the Institutes and Centers of the NIH have developed many mechanisms, initiatives, and programs to support either multidisciplinary or disciplinary research (where multidisciplinary is defined as bringing together different disciplines to focus on a circumscribed problem, but keeping the disciplines distinct).

Interdisciplinary research integrates the analytical strengths of two or more often disparate scientific disciplines to create a new hybrid discipline. By engaging seemingly unrelated disciplines, traditional gaps in terminology, approach, and methodology might gradually be eliminated.

We all jumped happily on the Roadmap bandwagon. But that was then, and this is now.

The focus on multidisciplinary (sometimes referred to as pluridisciplinary) research did not last long. Towards the end of 2003, NIH told us this:

It is becoming apparent that, in some cases, multidisciplinary research is not sufficient to address-in a comprehensive and effective way-challenging and complex problems in biomedical and behavioral research. Rather, interdisciplinary research may be required to tackle these more complex problems. Like multidisciplinary research, interdisciplinary research brings together different disciplines to address a particular issue. But unlike multidisciplinary research, interdisciplinary research takes bits and pieces from the contributing disciplines and integrates them in ways that produce a new conceptual framework. Integrating different disciplines in this way holds the promise of opening up currently unimagined scientific avenues of inquiry and, in the process, may form whole new disciplines.

Now, NIH has little to say about multidisciplinary research.

Okay, so multidisciplinary is out, and interdisciplinary is in. (The Roadmap is out, too, and the NIH Common Fund–we accelerate discovery is in.) But that’s okay; language evolves, right? The new definition of interdisciplinary feels much like the old definition of multidisciplinary but with more potential. But that’s okay.

So what was the question again?

Transdisciplinary research goes further than interdisciplinary–and I’m not sure I’m buying it. While interdisciplinary research brings different disciplines to bear on a specific problem, in transdisciplinary research, the knowledge from each discipline is melded together and creates a new framework for the research team. The researchers share the same newly formed knowledge and skill set. However, it seems to me, that if this occurs, the team has created a new discipline, and isn’t the research disciplinary then? A quibble, but still. At any rate, transdisciplinary seems to be the current buzzword of choice to describe research teams that cross multiple disciplines.

Where are we so far? Okay, multidisciplinary involves individuals from different disciplines addressing a common problem-whether together or individually. I think, to a great extent, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary can be used interchangeably. Information and expertise is shared and the lines between disciplines become blurred.

So, what about intradisciplinary? Well, it doesn’t show up in most dictionaries, although there are lots of hits if you google it. The main problem I have with it is that it’s silly. ‘Intra’ means ‘in’ or ‘within’ so intradisciplinary means within a discipline. So if you are talking about one discipline, won’t disciplinary cover it and the ‘intra’ makes it redundant? I understand that within fields, there are multiple specialty areas (for example, within epidemiology, you can have expertise in and specialize in a variety of areas such as chronic disease, cancer, women’s health, psychiatry, aging, injury, environment, genetics, etc. and these would all be considered intradisciplinary); however, I would consider them all areas within one discipline: epidemiology. I see no use for intradisciplinary.

The bottom line to all this is that jargon changes over time, and we are best off paying attention to what NIH is using at the moment. But let’s forget about intradisciplinary.



  1. This was very helpful ( and quite humorous)! Thanks!

  2. […] blog by one “dlseltzer” at the University of Pittsburgh. dlseltzer devoted an entire post on this subject last year, using the NIH Roadmap  of 2003 to try to parse out what the differences […]

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