The following is part of the introduction to a wonderfully articulate and intelligent academic paper, Towards Solving the Interdisciplinary Language Barrier Problem by Sébastien Paquet, curator of an equally inviting weblog called Seb’s Open Research.
While specialization is desirable from that particular point of view, it also has a downside: the more a person becomes specialized, the less he can meaningfully discuss problems that matter to him with other people. In effect, the specialist is very often restricted to collaboration with other specialists in the same area. As one gets more and more specialized, pools of colleagues grow ever smaller. This is unfortunate because discussions with specialists in another area often prove to be fertile ground, as ideas and strategies which were first developed in one field often turn out to be adaptable to a problem in a different field. Indeed, breakthroughs often result from interdisciplinary collaboration: it is not unusual that effective tools for tackling a long-standing problem in an area are found in another area. For instance, the recent scientific successes of genome sequencing owe much to the collaboration between biologists and computer specialists. Another adverse consequence of the isolation arising from specialization is that many people reinvent the wheel for themselves because they are unaware of similar work that has been done elsewhere.
Interdisciplinary communication is thus desirable from the point of view of progress: that is, it is helpful in solving problems, especially the more important and challenging ones. Consequently, finding efficient ways of communicationg with outsiders is becoming an increasingly pressing problem for people who are not content with speaking only with an inner circle of colleagues. A way to alleviate the problem is to learn another specialty, which will provide opportunities for discussion with a larger circle of people. However, learning a specialty usually involves a considerable time investment: moreover, there are so many different specialties that even selecting a promising one can be a difficult problem in itself.