Do we over specialise?

“Everyone is getting better at less and less, and one day someone is going to be superb at nothing”. Kenneth Williams.

Following on from my posts about the ever expanding literature comes the issue of specialisation in academia. In the olden days when science was forming as a concept most people dabbled in many fields – it was normal for people to work on mathematics, chemistry, botany, astronomy and philosophy all but simultaneously. Even within fields like zoology it was normal for people like Darwin to devote time to South American fossil mammals, barnacles, worm behaviour and more aside from his theorising and work on natural selection. Even as little as 20 or 30 years ago it was common to find researchers who worked on ‘whales’ or ‘dinosaurs’ when now one might find one researcher specialising in sauropod mechanics and another in sauropod feeding and yet another on their systematics. I think it fair to say then that over time there has been a pretty strong trend towards increased specialisation by researchers and while of course everyone dabbles well outside their supposed ‘main research theme’, the theme in itself seems to shrink in each generation of research.

There’s no doubt that greater specialisation allows researchers to do better and more detailed science. It’s hard to know everything about dinosaurs so if you try, your work on sauropod feeding mechanics might be a bit superficial – if you specialise in sauropod feeding mechanics then you likely have read every paper on the subject and in detail and will be able to bring that knowledge and expertise to bear on the problem. This is, of course, a good thing in general. More work of a more detailed nature will be done and it stops people from getting lost in the vast realms of literature and specimens of a much larger field (100 years ago one could probably easily see every dinosaur *specimen*, now it’s probably rare for someone to have seen a single representative of every family) and of tackling tricky areas that might require specialist knowledge.

However, I think there is a danger of missing the wood for the trees. Just as a spotlight lets us see into a dark and deep well of a scientific problem, a more general illumination of the area around us can be just as valuable, if not more so. It reminds me of the old tale of the blind monks and the elephant – details are all well and good, but you need someone to see the bigger picture.

To draw from my own experiences, I have found that some people have a very limited knowledge out things outside of their own narrow focus and that they can struggle when trying to integrate things from other branches of biology. Without the contributions of colleagues (themselves typically specialists) then it’s clear that people are in a position to produce less good science. In short, collaboration is (I think) becoming more and more important for more and more research as the specialisation of researchers continues.

You could call this a plea for generalists in science or a warning that over specialisation could harm future research. However, I’d prefer to see it as a discussion point (since although it’s fairly obvious what I think, it’s not something I’ve discussed much with my peers) – is there too much specialisation? Are ‘generalists’ (at whatever level) a dying breed? Is this a problem?

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19 Responses to “Do we over specialise?”

  1. 1 Dom Nardi 03/12/2009 at 10:17 am

    Most emphatically yes, we do over-specialize. However, I’d note that this trend is by no means limited to paleontology, or even the natural sciences. Indeed, in my fields, law and political science, very often you will have an expert on “export controls” under a treaty or “game theory” analysis. However, two habits can mitigate against over-specialization. First, for those in academia, teaching lower-level courses (Basic Anatomy, Torts, etc.) requires you to learn a bit more about other fields in order to teach it at an introductory level. Second, specializing in comparative studies of a particular issue can increase communication across traditional academic barriers. One of the things I try to do in my work is to introduce theories or legal developments from other parts of the world that might apply to my own area of interest (Southeast Asia). Thus, I hopefully encourage other researchers to look at the wider world. In my role as an outsider, I’ve seen some of that in biology, with some researchers looking at animal communication or the evolution of certain features (Neil Shubin’s work seems a prime example of this – he teaches anatomy in medical school and studies ancient fish!). Just some thoughts.

  2. 2 Tor Bertin 03/12/2009 at 1:08 pm

    I obviously can’t speak as an experienced researcher, since I’m nothing of the sort. But as somebody starting to put his foot into the research pond, I’m finding that though it’s pretty much essential to have some generalized background information, to do the quality of writing and work that I aspire towards I can’t divert my focus *too* much or the needed details slip away.

    I’m certainly planning on broadening my focus and breadth of knowledge as much as I can down the road, but I think that having a primary interest and specialty while still dealing with other things to avoid stagnation is healthy.

    • 3 David Hone 03/12/2009 at 1:16 pm

      Of course people do have a general knowledge of many things – I can probably teach an undergraduate lecture or three (or even a few postgraduate ones) on ornithischians without having to reach for a text book, but I would have to do a ton of reading if I wanted to write a serious paper on hadrosaurs or ankylosaurs. One problem here of course (in terms of the diuscussion) is the continuum of knowledge and trying to quantify ‘expects’ and ‘specialisation’.

      • 4 Tor Bertin 03/12/2009 at 1:51 pm

        Out of curiosity, how has the trend towards specialization (with whatever working definition we choose to use) compared with tbe influx of new researchers in the field and the rate of discoveries being made?

        I understand that it’s something that is happening in other fields as well, so obviously that’s not the whole of it, but I think that it may be at least a contributing factor.

      • 5 Tor Bertin 03/12/2009 at 1:55 pm

        Man, should reread your post before commenting since you covered that entirely. 😉

      • 6 David Hone 03/12/2009 at 1:56 pm

        I suspect that is part of it – the more researcher there are the more they might tend to specialise. But then also to counter that there are new fields and techniques – Evo Devo is new, deep scans of bones and digital reconstructions and modelling were unknown in palaeo just a few years ago. I think the problem is that instead of expanding our ranges we switch subject. So there are whole new fields to explore but at the same time traditional anatomy and taxonomy are dying off when we need them *as well*.

      • 7 Tor Bertin 03/12/2009 at 2:01 pm

        Absolutely! No questions there. Having specific interests may be necessary, but to fully understand the depth of an area of research (even if it’s a specialized area) we would be shooting ourselves in the foot by not using all the tools possible to properly put these things in their proper context.

  3. 8 Bill Parker 03/12/2009 at 2:38 pm

    I would think that “over specialization” in paleontology is simply the result of their being more and more fossils of specific types collected each year and more and more literature to master. For example, in my field of aetosaurs, someone working on this group in the 1960s or even the 1980s had much less material to study and many less papers to read, thus they didn’t need to devote as much time an energy to a single field. As we collect more and more fossils and publish more and more papers we develop more and more research questions. It seems like a never ending cycle. How does one remain a broad generalist (assuming an indepth knowledge of many subjects) when there is so much to tackle regarding every single aspect of paleontology? I find it amazing that just looking at pneumaticity in sauropod vertebrae can keep at least two people busy full time and there is probably so much that they will never even get to! As I tell my students, learn one thing really, really well (i.e. develop an expertise in one thing) and then you can dabble in other things. I also strongly agree with a statement I’ve heard that “fossils aren’t rare, paleontologists are rare.”

  4. 9 Tam 03/12/2009 at 3:01 pm

    “There’s no doubt that greater specialisation allows researchers to do better and more detailed science.”

    I find this comment interesting Dave. Its seems to indicate you think more detailed science equates with better science or something of that sort. Whether that is the case or not, I don’t agree with you. I think there is some doubt, or doubters, perhaps even yourself included, who do not believe it is inherent that greater specialisation equals better science.

    Just this one line itself raises a course-worth of questions starting with ‘what is good science?’

    You think lectures on ornithischians counts as generalist? I think you may have proven your own point there, Haha! 🙂

    I guess in a sense I am antiquated in some of my views and I am sure my career will suffer as a result. I just can’t help but picking generalist work, from RA in science comm, philosophy of science, pterosaurs and, well, my phd is quite the hodge podge Maybe some of us are doomed, or maybe there will always be a place for those of us who refuse to focus on just one thing.

    • 10 David Hone 03/12/2009 at 3:24 pm

      Maybe ‘better’ was a poor choice of word, but depending on your interpretation I think it’s true. To follow on from Bill’s point – and to take one example – if I were to go a do a couple of papers on sauropod vertebra pneumaticy I think i’d do a decent job. I’ve seen a fair few and I know the basics of invasions and patterns and how they relate to laminae etc. etc. However, I bet I’d miss some subtleties, or obvious cross-references to other key taxa or obscure material because I don’t know the field that well. A true specialist would do a *better* job than me (I think) beucase he would either not make those errors, (an improvement) or would be able to make better comparisons / extrapolations (an improvement) or both. I think that would make for a better paper and by extension (though arguably, I agree) better science.

      Now I could spend months and months getting that same level of knowledge and expertise and experience that the sauropod vert guys already have but then I’d not be doing the work I want to, or need to, or can do in my own capacity as an expert in other fields. Hence I think they would do better science than me and should do it instead of me where practical and possible. I can still be involved and active in this area and use my own skills to link to other issues (like mass estimates and ecology) so I would be doing some of the research, but I think this presents at least one case for greater specialisation = greater research.

      As for affecting your work, join the queue. I think of myself as more a generalist than anything else and several colleagues have told me I should / must specialise to help my career or risk being labelled as ‘not good enough at anything’, when I’d label myself as ‘quite good at lots’ and of course abel to link research together. Sadly however, my opinion doesn’t count, those of they who might hire me or assess my grant applcaitions do, and they seem to say specialise. Thus while I think it *does* improve research (in the main) I also think too much is bad. Have specialists by all means, but generalists too.

  5. 11 Manabu Sakamoto 03/12/2009 at 6:16 pm

    Well, you know that I’ve specialised rather narrowly on biting mechanics, but I don’t choose a pet group; my group of choice is theropods but I have looked at some lizards, crocs, birds, and cats as well.

    and to put that specialist knowledge into broader perspective, I’ve taught myself phylogenetic comparative methods (and I hope I’ve proven that I can use it adequately now that I have a paper accepted after three rigorous rounds of review). So one can specialise in two or more methodologies but have a generalist approach to taxonomic selection, I suppose.

  6. 12 Mike Taylor 03/12/2009 at 6:21 pm

    It does actually frighten me that someone awarded me a Ph.D when my knowledge was — and still is, mostly — so embarrassingly over-specialised. For example, I still know nothing about sauropod feet. I honestly wouldn’t be able to tell an MT-IV from a pedal phalanx I-I. On one level, that seems wrong; on another, you could argue that our modern capacity for absurd over-specialisation means that I’ve been able to get good work done over in Sauropod Vertebra World that wouldn’t have been done at all otherwise.

    What I’ve found is that there are two approaches to knowledge acquisition that both work. In schools, you go broad and shallow, then gradually increase the depth. In my work on palaeo, I’ve gone deep and narrow, and then gradually increased the breadth, so I’ve learned each additional area as I’ve needed it for something I’m actually working on. It’s an appealing approach — it means you can start to be productive much more quickly — but it does leave me feeling a bit of a fraud sometimes.

    • 13 David Hone 04/12/2009 at 8:42 am

      Well Mike you are an exceptional case with the way you came into the field. However, given the way vert palaeo people often have to work (you have only the fossils available to you that you can easily get your hands or see) means that over specialisation can be a problem. I can imagine that a chemist can almost infinitely specialise provided he can get hold of the chemicals he wants to work on. While I’m blessed with what is at the IVPP, I can’t access lots of the kinds of specimens I’d like to work on and am best suited to work on, so I do end up working on oviraptorosaur skulls, sauropod vertebrae and pterosaur jaws (to name three examples) that I know other people could do better than me, but I’m here and they’re not. Ironically, if my general knowledge was much better it might be less of a problem for me…

  7. 14 Krystal D'Costa 05/12/2009 at 11:53 am

    An excellent post, David. Yes, specialization is rampant across all disciplines—in cultural anthro, specialties are often defined down specific observances in specific circumstances (i.e., Bengali wedding practices involving interfaith couples). And while a certain degree can be attributed to new fields and techniques, but there is also pressure to specialize.

    “There’s no doubt that greater specialisation allows researchers to do better and more detailed science.”

    I read this sentence differently from Tam—the issue of better science never crossed my mind, but funding certainly did. To what degree do we specialize (or over specialize) to secure funding? In an ideal world, we’d be able to pursue our research interests without tying ourselves in knots to prove our research goals worthy. But the situation is less than ideal, and while there are any number of worthy projects in need of funding, to receive the award researchers often have to invent unoccupied niches to fill.

    I’m all for general knowledge—you can’t truly understand your subject sans context, and general knowledge provides that context.

    • 15 David Hone 05/12/2009 at 1:02 pm

      I certainly agree that funding can be a real issue and trying to be very different from everyone else, or do something new, or just to follow a trend of ‘sexy science’ can push people towards specialisation. I’d not thought of it while writing this, good point.

  8. 16 David 05/12/2009 at 3:00 pm

    I think there is room for both generalists and specialists in science. Generalists might either synthesize the results of specialists or provide particular techniques across different substantive areas as part of teams. But generalists of today need to be more specialized obviously than those of yesteryear and also they need really to be better than the average specialist in order to make quality contributions I think. There are plenty of generalists out there in economics/environmental studies etc. getting crap papers published in crap journals. I think of myself as being fairly generalist within environmental, resource, and ecological economics though I also have a specialist focus (air pollution, climate change, energy etc.). Maybe because you have to be interdisciplinary to do anything good in my area we all tend to be a bit generalist? Sauropod vertebrae as a field does sound awfully specialized to me. I don’t think there are good economists who are as specialized as that – say a specialist on one industry or market in a particular country might be the equivalent.

    • 17 David Hone 05/12/2009 at 5:08 pm

      Well yes, I think modern ‘generalists’ are more specialised that the older ones, and that yes there is room for both generalists and specialists. However, I do think there is an overall trend for hyper-specialisation and simultaneously away from generalisation (the two not being mutually exclusive). There does seem to be some evidence from the comments coming in that this is pervasive in the sciences and social sciences and even beyond.

  9. 18 John Postill 19/12/2009 at 6:23 pm

    My own area of specialisation is the anthropology of media. In my experience there appear to be two very different pressures at work at two different stages in the production of anthropological knowledge. First, you want to put together a proposal around a question that builds on your prior specialisation so that you can have an edge over other researchers seeking that kind of funding. At the latter stage of writing up, you want to draw from you highly specialised ethnographic research to address not just your fellow 5 or 6 super-specialists but a broader constituency across the social sciences/social theory.

  1. 1 Dinosaur discoveries « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 11/05/2011 at 8:17 am
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