I’ve been having conversations this week about how different research disciplines come together to share ideas on similar topics.

At Microsoft Research New England on Monday this week, Nancy Baym and Jonathan Sterne brought together a fantastic group of leading academics from around the world and from a wide range of disciplines at the intersection of music and technology for a one-day symposium which addressed the fertility of music as a subject that bridges computational, social scientific and humanistic approaches.

Read more about that here.

And at the European Commission meeting on the Future of Creativity and Creative Industries, we talked a lot about ways in which different disciplines could collaborate and research around the creative industries in the digital context.

It brought up the terms ‘inter-disciplinary’, ‘multi-disciplinary’ and ‘cross-disciplinary’. I came up with a way to make a distinction between them.

Imagine that researchers stand in buckets. Those buckets are full of the ‘water’ (or perhaps the blood, sweat and tears) of their own field. To collaborate, the researchers can do several things:

1) They can stand near each other, in their own buckets, and have conversations about what they’re studying. That’s multi-disciplinary research.

2) They can each move from one bucket to another, bringing some water with them each time. That’s cross-disciplinary research.

3) They can stand with a foot in more than one bucket. That’s inter-disciplinary research.

They all have their merits – and they’re not mutual exclusive – but they’re not the same. I happen to prefer the third one, not because that’s what I’m best at – but because I most admire those who can do it well.