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Does interdisciplinary research attract more social media attention?

July 31, 2023

By Linda Willems


That’s the fascinating question a team of researchers set out to answer with the help of Elsevier’s ICSR Lab

For Prof Shiji Chen, exploring how interdisciplinary research influences science and society has become a major element of his work at the Chinese Academy of Science and Education Evaluation (CASEE), part of China’s Hangzhou Dianzi University.

Over the past few years, he’s published a range of papers on the topic. And last year, Shiji and his colleagues Xuyan Ren and Junping Qiu identified an intriguing knowledge gap in the published literature. As Shiji explains: “We found that while the impact of interdisciplinary research is a popular research topic, there are very few studies that focus specifically on its social impact.”

Prof Shiji Chen, PhD

Prof Shiji Chen, PhD

To bridge that gap, they embarked on a new study with the support of Elsevier’s International Center for the Study of Research (ICSR) and its ICSR Lab — a cloud-based computational platform that enables researchers to analyze large structured datasets, including those that power Elsevier solutions such as Scopus and PlumX Metrics.

According to Shiji: “Since interdisciplinary research is closely related to applied and societal problems that generally impact the general public, we thought it may receive more attention on social media than specialized research.”

Drawing on a variety of analytic approaches, they established that interdisciplinary research does indeed attract more attention than single-discipline research on Twitter and Mendeley — the two channels they analyzed. And that attention stems from both academic and non-academic communities. In addition, they found that the greater the level of interdisciplinarity in a paper, the more social media attention it tends to receive.

For Shiji, the results are a further confirmation of the valuable roles that both interdisciplinary research and social media play in modern science:

Social media platforms support communication and collaboration between researchers from different fields and regions. They enable researchers to share ideas and findings quickly and easily, and to collaborate on research projects in real-time. And they also help researchers reach a broader audience — social media enables them to share their research with policymakers, practitioners and the general public. They can even receive feedback and engage in discussions about their work.

In the case of interdisciplinarity, Shiji believes it has become an essential form of research: “It makes a crucial contribution towards solving complex problems and advancing our knowledge and understanding. And as the challenges we face continue to grow in complexity, I suspect its role will become even more vital.”

Shiji hopes the results of his study will help to drive new policy recommendations for the development of interdisciplinary research and encourage decision makers to prioritize it in their plans.

What is interdisciplinary research?

Interdisciplinarity is a term used to describe the integration of data, techniques, tools, perspectives or theories from two or more disciplines to create a true synthesis of ideas and concepts. Many believe that interdisciplinary research offers promising opportunities to solve the key challenges facing society today. And increasingly, governments and funding bodies want to see evidence of an interdisciplinary approach in research, particularly a focus on mission-driven projects that bring economic or societal benefits.

Drawing on the richness of Elsevier’s data and technology

According to Shiji, the data and expertise supplied by the ICSR Lab were crucial to his study. The Lab’s team began by working with Shiji and his co-authors to understand their research goals. They then used Scopus to create a dataset for the researchers which contained research papers published in the years 2018 and 2019, along with their references and cited papers. The variety and volume of disciplines mentioned in the references were used to determine whether a paper qualified as interdisciplinary. The dataset also included Elsevier’s PlumX Metrics, which, alongside the more traditional measure of citations, provide a variety of alternative metrics to show how people have interacted with individual research outputs online.

Shiji explains: “Altmetrics are a useful tool to help evaluate and verify the social impact of interdisciplinary research. PlumX has five categories: Captures, Citations, Mentions, Social Media, and Usage. For the preprint, we chose to focus on two of those: Captures and Social Media. Specifically, we looked at the number of readers per publication in Mendeley’s user libraries and the number of mentions the papers received on Twitter.”

He adds: “We chose these two metrics for a few reasons. First, Mendeley and Twitter represent different user groups: Mendeley is the data source that arguably receives the most scholarly interest, and the user community tends to be academic, while Twitter also reaches non-academic audiences. Secondly, they are two of the most widely used social media tools and data sources for academic work. And research shows that they are among the social media platforms with the highest paper coverage in Scopus.”

The ICSR Lab also provided Shiji and his colleagues with access to its cloud-based computational platform for the analysis phase, and the team was on hand to guide them throughout the process. He says: “They were really a great help and saved our researchers a lot of time, helping us to solve research problems we encountered along the way.”

For Alvin Dingopens in new tab/window, the ICSR Lab Research Evaluation Manager who worked with Shiji and his team, the collaboration offered the opportunity to support an exciting area of research:

I’ve always enjoyed working with researchers, and it’s great to know that the ICSR Lab was able to help Prof Chen and his team’s research. The data resources available in the ICSR Lab are always increasing, and I’m looking forward to seeing more and more innovative research ideas around scientometrics implemented in the Lab.

Alvin Ding

Alvin Ding


Portrait photo of Linda Willems


Linda Willems

Freelance writer and owner

Blue Lime Communications

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