The Care and Feeding of an Interdisciplinary Journal

ABSTRACT - The role of an interdisciplinary publication is explored in this paper with reference to the development of consumer behavior. Included are such considerations as the need for an interdisciplinary publication, how it functions, and the problems involved in staying interdisciplinary and at the same time gaining acceptance from the more standard disciplines.


Robert Ferber (1980) ,"The Care and Feeding of an Interdisciplinary Journal", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 49-51.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 49-51


Robert Ferber

[The writer would like to express his appreciation for helpful comments and suggestions to Marianne Ferber, Harold Kassarjian, Scott Maynes, William Wells and Jerry Wind.]

[The author is Director of the Survey Research Laboratory and Research Professor of Economics and Business Administration at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, and Professor Marketing at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle. He is also the Editor of the Journal of Consumer Research.]


The role of an interdisciplinary publication is explored in this paper with reference to the development of consumer behavior. Included are such considerations as the need for an interdisciplinary publication, how it functions, and the problems involved in staying interdisciplinary and at the same time gaining acceptance from the more standard disciplines.


Despite the increasing pressure to publish, getting good manuscripts, maintaining subscribers, and staying alive is not easy for almost any non-association journal, and is especially difficult for interdisciplinary publications such as JCR. The reasons for this will be outlined in the first part of this presentation, which will cover partly the knotty question of why an interdisciplinary publication, what is it, and the problems involved in obtaining suitable manuscripts. The second part of my presentation will then focus on ways of dealing with these problems.


An interdisciplinary publication is obviously one that cuts across several disciplines and attempts to integrate their different approaches to focus on the solution of certain common problems. Thus, in the case of consumer behavior, the focus is on such problems as consumer choice, consumer information processing, and consumer purchasing behavior, aspects that are to be studied by use of methods and techniques derived from the more standard disciplines of Economics, Sociology, Psychology, Marketing, and Quantitative Methods.

However, when we think of it further, we may raise the further question: what is a discipline? Presumably it is an integrated body of thought based on a common set of axioms focusing on certain common problems. For example, the discipline of Economics seeks to study how individuals allocate limited resources to achieve certain goals using some sort of principles of optimization. When one considers this definition further, however, it becomes clear

that this definition of Economics or of any other discipline is not rigid and keeps changing with time. For example, economists are now studying such previously far-out topics as fertility and marriage. Other disciplines have changed so radically over the last 50 years that they are hardly recognizable in their original form. For example, Geography, which originally was primarily a physical science, has been transformed to the study of social problems and is now classified under social science.

If the disciplines keep changing, and if there is nothing sacrosanct about them, what then is a discipline? Moreover, when does an interdisciplinary field stop being simply a combination of disciplines and become instead a separate discipline of its own? Clearly for this to happen, an integrated body of knowledge, focusing on common and reasonably well-defined issues is essential.


Such a development seems to be taking place in the field of consumer behavior. Certainly there are common issues that bring together scholars from other fields to study common problems. Methods and procedures are presently being evolved, some coming from other disciplines and others being developed from scratch. For these to take place in the development of consumer behavior, an interdisciplinary highly-regarded publication is essential. As Scott Maynes points out, there are three reasons for this. First, consumer behavior has no disciplinary boundaries. Hence, adequate understanding and explanation of consumer behavior is best achieved by combining information and approaches from different disciplines. Second, the various disciplines take different perspectives in looking at the consumer. For example, Marketing looks at the consumer primarily from the viewpoint of the seller; Economics looks at the consumer from the viewpoint of the individual; Home Economics from the viewpoint of the family; and so on. Third, the study of consumer behavior involves both deductive and inductive (mainly empirical) approaches, and the well-rounded student of consumer behavior needs to understand both of these, something that is best provided once more through the medium of an interdisciplinary journal.

Given that an interdisciplinary journal is needed for consumer behavior, the question from the point of view of the journal is how it can stay alive and prosper, when the field to which it is catering is still in a very formative stage. Essentially, there are two factors to consider. One is that the initial size of the audience is by definition very, very small. Hence, partly to keep itself going, and partly to stimulate the development of the new discipline, the journal has to attract both authors and readers from the older disciplines, and get them interested in writing in, and reading about, the new disciplines. This is not easy to accomplish because the far majority of the potential audience (or market) are specialists in the older disciplines -- Economics, Marketing, Psychology -- and their rewards come from teaching, writing, and research in these older disciplines, since the evaluators and the administrators are almost always also people in these older disciplines.

Given this situation, it is only natural for people to wish to publish their best work in the publications of that discipline. Young people wish to do so because that is the quickest way to attaining promotion and recognition in their field, while more established people wish to do so since it yields them further recognition and establishes among their colleagues the priority of particular ideas or findings.

In addition, more often than not, a new so-called interdisciplinary journal does not have the status or the ranking in a discipline as the best journals in that discipline. And, while publication may sometimes be easier in an interdisciplinary journal, the lower readership and status of that journal in the discipline of the author is a powerful argument for submission of their best manuscripts elsewhere.

A very different sort of problem in obtaining good manuscripts is the requirement that the manuscript be interdisciplinary. This means that the problem be of interest, or at least of relevance, to people in other disciplines, that the methodology and the presentation be understandable to them, and that the interdisciplinary implications be brought out. The problem is that many people competent in one discipline seem unable to do this, partly from lack of interest in other disciplines (a characteristic very common among younger people), and partly because they do not have the necessary knowledge or background to accomplish this. (Based on my experience, I would judge that economists and social psychologists are the worst in the latter regard; they frequently continue to use technical terms on the basis that if they use the term often enough, anybody will understand it -- even though they themselves may sometimes change the meaning of these terms.)

Ultimately, once the interdisciplinary field of consumer behavior is established and recognized as a separate discipline, many of these problems may vanish. How soon this happens, however, depends to a large extent on our success in inducing authors to take this interdisciplinary orientation in their writing, so that more and more readers will understand what they are doing and be attracted to the field.


Unfortunately, many of the manuscripts that we receive are interdisciplinary in a way that a golf club serves as the handle for a tennis racket. More often than not, the problem is stated in the language and from the point of view of a single discipline, and then an attempt is made to indicate why the problem may be of relevance to other disciplines. The methods used also are usually from a single discipline (though this seems to be changing), sometimes using only the language of that discipline -- such as utility theory from economics, and the results are presented in the same manner. In the section on interpretation and implications the author does usually try to discuss the relevance of the findings to other disciplines, sometimes fairly successfully, other times not. Other manuscripts will be more multi-disciplinary than interdisciplinary. Thus, a problem may be divided into several parts, each part treated separately by a person from a different discipline, and the results then combined in a single manuscript. This is not overly effective and often leads to a disjointed manuscript.


Whatever the nature of the manuscript, it is perhaps pretty obvious that the review process for such manuscripts has to be different than what would otherwise be the case. Basically two types of evaluation are needed. First, is the manuscript sound in terms of the conceptual framework and any analysis that is carried out? Especially for an interdisciplinary publication it is most important that the work be of a quality that would be fully acceptable by the top journals in that discipline. If this is not the case, we would soon start to get the reputation of a second-class publication, at least for that discipline.

Second, the manuscript has to be understandable to people outside of the particular discipline, and also be of relevance, and hopefully of interest, to readers in other disciplines. If not, the manuscript can hardly be termed interdisciplinary.

For these reasons, the review process for an interdisciplinary manuscript requires two different types of readers -- a specialist in the topic and a person who is definitely not a specialist. The former type of reviewer has to check the manuscript for soundness and for meeting the requirements of that discipline; while the latter type of reviewer has to verify that the manuscript is indeed interdisciplinary, and that it is also relevant to other disciplines.

In fact, obtaining such interdisciplinary reviews is not as difficult as one may think because many, if not most, of the members of the Board of Editors of JCR have technical expertise in more than one discipline, so that they can readily understand what a manuscript is about, even though the approach and wording is highly specialized. This is fine from the point of view of obtaining yet another technical evaluation, but makes it more difficult to assure that a manuscript is indeed understandable and relevant to people in other disciplines. The problem is compounded by the fact that while it is highly desirable in terms of acceptability to publish articles of an interdisciplinary nature from leading people in individual disciplines, these often are the very people who find it most difficult to prepare articles with an interdisciplinary orientation.


The solutions to these problems are of two types, one type for the long run and one type for the short run. For the long run, the solution lies in gaining acceptability for the study of consumer behavior not only as an interdisciplinary field of study, but as a separate discipline of its own. The success with which we are able to obtain this goal will, however, depend in large measure on our success in attracting people to the study of consumer behavior, and in attracting increasing numbers of people into working in that field as their primary specialization. We have developed a number of steps for achieving this objective, which we hope will do so, to the extent that publication in JCR will be fully acceptable, and will yield as many brownie points, as publication in a top journal of one's own discipline. The steps we have taken may be outlined briefly as follows:

1.  Setting up a Policy Board for JCR that includes a prominent representative from each of the associations that co-sponsor the Journal. The members of this Board bring a broad interdisciplinary focus to bear on the basic directions of JCR.

2.  Inviting leading members of each discipline represented in consumer behavior to serve on the Board of Editors of JCR. An active Editorial Board, composed of leading members from the different disciplines, provides an image to other members of these disciplines of acceptance of the Journal within the discipline.

3.  Undertaking an active public relations campaign to acquaint members of the different disciplines of the existence of JCR and of the publications opportunities it presents. It is for this reason, for example, that information is sent to the newsletters of every sponsoring association on the material appearing in each issue of JCR, and on selected articles that are likely to be of particular interest to people of that discipline.

4.  The development of special issues on topics that are clearly of an interdisciplinary nature. Thus, the first special issue dealt with a synthesis of selected aspects of consumer behavior, published in March 1976; our next special issue, which appeared this September dealt with consumer decision-making; and special issues in the next two or three years will deal with the consumption of time and with consumer behavior and energy. All of these are clearly topics of broad interdisciplinary interest, and are also at the same time of considerable interest to people working in the disciplines.

5.  We also seek review articles of an interdisciplinary nature. In this respect, we have not been as successful in soliciting such manuscripts directly as we have in receiving them through the regular submissions process. Unfortunately, good manuscripts of this type are few and far between, and the people who are usually best able to write such manuscripts are also likely to be most occupied with other tasks.

Clearly, all of these are part of a many-pronged campaign to gain for JCR the same degree of acceptability and awareness among researchers as the top journals in their own disciplines. It involves a rather delicate balancing act, since at the same time we are trying to obtain wide awareness and acceptance, we also have to be careful to avoid being tagged as favoring one discipline over another. Moreover, we have to carry a wide assortment of articles to appeal to readers from these different disciplines, not to mention the problem of satisfying some readers who are interested primarily in methodology while others are interested only in substantive applications.

Success for an interdisciplinary publication is not easy, and does not happen overnight. However, we seem to be moving in the right direction. Certainly, this is the path along which social science research is moving, as reflected in the growing number of interdisciplinary programs, some of which are leading to the establishment of new disciplines. Publications like JCR are in the forefront of this movement and I, for one, feel that it is a privilege to be a part of it.



Robert Ferber


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07 | 1980

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