Scientific synthesis
Bill Dennison
UMCES Faculty Convocation
Appalachian Laboratory
10 May 2013
Synthesis definition
(Kemp & Boynton)
The inferential process whereby
new models are developed from
analysis of multiple data sets to
explain observed patterns
across a range of time and
space scales
Kemp & Boynton 201
Synthesis definition (SESYNC)
A research method that draws from many
sources, including researchers and/or
multiple fields of inquiry, accelerating
knowledge production by distilling data, ideas,
theories, or methods. Synthesis may involve
the development or application of models or
the integration of methods from different
disciplines to define new approaches or
research directions. It may also involve critical
analysis to evaluate arguments or interpret
evidence, from the highly quantitative (data
sets) to the highly qualitative (oral histories).
Boyer defined scholarship as discovery,
integration, application and teaching
Boyer 1990
Boyer definition of integration
Boyer 1990
Boyer definition of integration
• Making connections across the
disciplines, placing the specialties
in larger context, illuminating data
in a revealing way, often educating
nonspecialists, too.
• Serious, disciplined work that
seeks to interpret, draw together,
and bring new insight to bear on
original research
Boyer 1990
Integration and Application Network
graphical concept of synthesis
Different types of synthesis
Data aggregation
Methological integration
Conceptual synthesis
Reuse of results (e.g.,
meta-data analysis)
Sidlauskas et al. 2009
Different types of synthesis
Sidlauskas et al. 2009
NCEAS: 1995-present, NSF funded,
UC Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara
Managing synthesis working groups
• Encourage diverse
• Manage power relationships
• Provide incentives for
individual group members
• Establish clear expectations
(data sharing, intellectual property,
authorship, ethical considerations)
• Build group cohesion
• Order the discussion Hampton & Parker 2011
NCEAS working groups
Hampton & Parker 2011
Importance of face-to-face interactions
Transmission of tacit knowledge
Role and identify formation
Trust, cohesion, commitment
Sense of gravitas
Expectations of quality
Hampton & Parker 2011
IAN: 2002-present, Grants & contracts
funded, UMCES
Two dozen Science Integrators & Science
IAN Press (300+ publications)
EcoCheck produces environmental report
cards locally and globally
Image & symbol libraries used widely
(100+ million downloads)
Teach short courses locally & globally
NESCent: 2004-present, NSF funded,
Duke/UNC/NC State, Durham
NIMBios: 2008-present, NSF funded,
U Tennessee, Knoxville
ACEAS: 2010-present, Australian government,
U Queensland, Brisbane
SESYNC: 2011-present, NSF funded,
U Maryland, Annapolis
Five step synthesis process
Peters 2010
Three phase synthesis process
Thompson et al., 201
Five step synthesis process
Kemp & Boynton 201
Steps in synthesis research
• Identify challenging science
• Assemble relevant data
• Integrate data by identifying
linkages among units
• Define alternative models that
explain or test problem
• Select simpliest model that
Kemp & Boynton 2012
maximizes explanation
Professional skills for conducting
synthesis research
• Tested native intelligence
• Expertise in specific research
• Critical, logical thinker
• Pattern recognition and
• Quantitative skills (statistics,
models, data management)
Kemp & Boynton 2012
Social skills needed for synthesis
• Inquistive attitude
• Willingness to develop and try new
• Tolerance and respect for unusual
• Interest in “Big Picture” issues
• Team orientation, interdisciplinary
• Good listener and open minded
• Willingness to share (ideas, data, and
Kemp & Boynton 2012
Mental exercises to build synthesis skills
Search for unconventional but general
Use isomorphisms, homologies, analogies
Tackle hard problems, but avoid impossible
Develop conceptual models with links and
Use consistent time, space and complexity
Broaden knowledge base
Work in team oriented interdisciplinary
Look for the Big Picture; find the
Kemp & Boynton 201
Institutional support for synthesis
• Reward multi-disciplinary research
• Recognize and reward
collaborative research
• Increase funding for synthesis
• Emphasize team aspect of
synthesis research
• Facilitate but do not institutionalize
Kemp & Boynton 2012
Boyer, EL. 1990. Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Carnegie
Foundation. 147 pp.
Hampton SE & JN Parker. Collaboration and productivity in scientific synthesis.
Bioscience 61: 900-910
Kemp WM & WR Boynton. 2012. Synthesis in estuarine and coastal ecological
research: What is it, why is it important, and how do we teach it? Estuaries and
Coasts 35: 1-22
Peters, DPC. 2010. Accessible ecology: Synthesis of the long, deep, and broad. Trends
in Ecology and Evolution 25: 592-601
Sidlauskas B, G Ganapathy, E Hazkani-Covo, KP Jenkins, H Lapp, LW McCall, S Price, R
Scherle, PA Spaeth, DW Kidd. Evolution 64: 871-880
Thompson SE, CJ Harman, R Schumer, JS Wilson, NB Basu, PD Brooks, SD Donner, MA
Hassan, AI Packman, PSC Rao, PA Troch, M Sivapalan. 2011. Patterns, puzzles and
people: Implementing hydrologic synthesis. Hydrological Processes 25: 3256-3266

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