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Review of UK’s interdisciplinary research 

In partnership with the other funding bodies and the Medical Research Council, we commissioned Elsevier to conduct a quantitative review of interdisciplinary research. 

Using the disciplinary diversity of article bibliographies as a proxy for interdisciplinarity, the study examined the intensity and performance of interdisciplinary research activity in the UK and in eight comparator countries in the years 2009-2013 (The comparator countries are: Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and USA). 

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 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. 

Some of the questions raised by the report are of particular interest, and indicate where further investigation would be beneficial. 

This includes understanding the reasons for the higher intensity of interdisciplinary research activity observed in the emerging research nations, and for the lower citation impact associated with interdisciplinary research found among all countries examined. 

Joint statement with AHRC and ESRC

HEFCE together with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, welcome the exploration of different methods and approaches to better understand the nature of interdisciplinary research. 

As highlighted in a recent review of research metrics, ‘The Metric Tide’, there are a number of issues that need to be considered when undertaking any citation-based analysis. These include variations in output types and what is currently captured in bibliographic databases, as well as issues relating to citation practices and the language of publication. For the arts, humanities and many of the social sciences disciplines only a small proportion of print-based research outputs have been included within this analysis.  Also, due to varying citation practices across disciplines, the approach used for capturing references within this study did not allow for a fuller capture of references from certain, arts, humanities and social sciences publications within the bibliographic database. Therefore, we note that caution must be used in interpreting the findings emerging from this report in relation to interdisciplinarity within these disciplines and in better understanding the nature of interdisciplinarity between these disciplines and STEM disciplines. 

Elsevier’s aim to expand their database to include monographs and collected editions is a very welcome initiative, suggesting that over time there may be a comparable level of information from all disciplines to allow for a more nuanced understanding of interdisciplinarity as seen through citation-based analyses of research publications. 

Analysis of REF submitted outputs

A supplementary report analysed outputs submitted to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and observed a lower proportion of the most interdisciplinary publications in REF submitted outputs than has been observed for the UK as a whole. 

The reasons for this difference need detailed exploration through a qualitative study, which the funding bodies intend to conduct later this year.

Page last updated 30 July 2015