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The study was conducted by Elsevier for the four UK higher education funding bodies and the Medical Research Council [Note 1]. Using the disciplinary diversity of article bibliographies as a proxy measure of their interdisciplinarity, the study examined the intensity and performance of interdisciplinary research activity in the UK and eight comparator countries from 2009 to 2013 [Note 2]. The findings show that:

  • UK interdisciplinary research activity is growing in intensity, in line with a global trend
  • UK interdisciplinary research is highly collaborative in international terms, with over 45 per cent of the most interdisciplinary publications co-authored with international colleagues
  • academia makes a major contribution to UK interdisciplinary research, with 85 per cent of the most interdisciplinary publications including at least one author from academia.

The report also observed:

  • a higher intensity of interdisciplinary research activity in the emerging research nations included in the study
  • a lower citation impact associated with interdisciplinary research among all the countries examined
  • the high and stable performance of UK research, with the UK’s publications (including the most interdisciplinary) attracting the highest citation impact of all comparator countries.

Responding to the new perspective provided by the report, Steven Hill, Head of Research Policy at HEFCE, said:

‘These findings underpin the wider evidence we have about the strong performance of the UK research base, and give a unique overview of interdisciplinary research activity. The methodology is exploratory, which has enabled us to gain new insights into UK research in an international context; it has also opened up further questions, which we look forward to exploring in partnership with the sector.’

The study analysed references in 8.7 million publications, providing a robust picture of UK research overall, and of publications arising from research in the medical and natural sciences and engineering, where coverage in bibliographic databases is high. As the coverage of the arts, humanities and some social sciences is lower because of disciplinary variations in publication and citation practices, caution is needed in interpreting the findings in relation to these disciplines.  


1. Read the report online. A supplementary report focusing on interdisciplinary research in the REF submitted outputs has been published alongside this report.

2. The comparator countries are Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the USA.