Research Evaluation & Funding

Interdisciplinary research: How do 9 nations compare?

Elsevier’s analysis for the UK’s higher education funding bodies and Medical Research Council reveals surprising results for China and Brazil

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Interdisciplinary research is behind many of today’s scientific breakthroughs, including those that provide tangible benefits to society.The complexity of nature and society compels researchers to break subject boundaries, drawing on insight and knowledge from a range of disciplines.

 A Review of the UK’s Interdisciplinary Research using a Citation-based ApproachTo see how leading research nations compare in interdisciplinary research (IDR), Elsevier was commissioned by UK higher education funding bodies and the Medical Research Council to do a bibliometric review of IDR activity from 2009 to 2013 in the UK and eight comparator countries: Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

This report – titled  A Review of the UK’s Interdisciplinary Research using a Citation-based Approach, was released yesterday by the the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) in London.

A novel methodology

The analysis was performed by Elsevier’s Analytical Services team. Their methodology was novel in that it measured IDR based on how close the journals cited in the articles’ references are in terms of the topics they cover. As such, the “closer” the journals are, the less likely the article belongs to IDR, which integrates knowledge from different disciplines.

To define the distance between any two journals, the method calculates the frequency the two journals occur together in references of the 2009-13 publications in Scopus. The more frequently they occur together, the more likely that the two journals are on related topics and therefore “close” to each other. In this way, the definition of IDR does not depend on rigid journal subject classifications.

Some key findings of the report:

  • Research is becoming markedly more interdisciplinary; all nine countries showed an increase in their share of IDR compared to their total research output.
  • IDR was associated with lower citation impact for the world as a whole and for the nine countries studied.
  • Across all studied countries, there was a lower share of international collaboration in IDR.
  • Across all studied countries and for the world as a whole, the highest percentage of IDR was found in medicine and natural sciences.
  • Compared to the other countries, the citation impact of IDR was highest for the UK.

Steven Hill, PhDResponding to the new perspective provided by the report, Dr. 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.”

Findings from this report will feed into the broader evaluation work of the UK’s National Assessment program, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which assesses the quality of research in UK higher education institutions.

Surprising results for emerging research nations

The report also found some striking findings for emerging research nations: China and Brazil. Both nations were found to have a higher share of IDR publications out of their total research output, compared with the traditionally more research-intensive countries in the study.

A closer look reveals that from 2009 to 2013, 12.3 percent of China’s publications and 11 percent of Brazil’s were among the world’s top 10 percent of IDR papers.

When comparing the proportion of IDR papers Brazil and China published in each subject to that of the world, subjects in the Natural Sciences and Engineering made up a larger portion of the IDR publications than papers in Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities. Conversely, for countries such as the US and UK, subjects in Social Sciences and Arts & Humanities made up a relatively larger portion of the IDR papers.

Percentage of a country’s publications in the world’s top 10 percent of IDR (Source: <em>A Review of the UK’s Interdisciplinary Research using a Citation-based Approach</em>) 

 Zheng Yonghe, PhDTo help better understand why China is leading in the area of IDR, we asked Dr. Zheng Yonghe, Director of Bureau of Policy for the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), for his interpretation of the results. He explained:

The reasons for China’s rapid development are diversified, and conclusions can be drawn only by in-depth analysis. Certainly, the Chinese government as well as relevant departments of science and technology have all stressed the importance of IDR over recent years by introducing specific guidelines and policies for pushing forward the IDR progress, playing a significant role in China’s IDR development. At present, this is also closely related to a growing number of increasingly complex science issues involving the context of China; solving these issues cannot be achieved by a single discipline, but instead, requires interdisciplinary, which can objectively advance the output of IDR.

Commenting on the findings for Brazil, Dante Cid, VP of Academic Relations for Latin America at Elsevier, said: “The report’s findings gives weight to the belief that researchers in emerging countries such as Brazil are given more leeway and encouraged to collaborate across academic disciplines. Another explanation for why countries such as China and Brazil are leading in IDR could be because their discipline-based faculty system is relatively new compared to more mature research countries that have existed for over a century. Also, many universities have merged and faculties have been reorganized in some BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, which may have created a higher level of cross-faculty research mobility and collaboration compared to the USA and UK, where the faculty systems are more established.”


Elsevier Connect Contributors

Lei Pan, PhDDr. Lei Pan, Content & Analytics Product Manager (EMEA), is based in Amsterdam. She is an economist who is trained to let data provide evidence for policies. In her current role, she serves clients mainly in Europe, Middle East and Africa, and specializes in analyses for funding bodies and analyses using economic data. Lei has just finished a project on the research performance of the United Kingdom in Chemical Engineering for EPSRC.


Sacha BoucherieSacha Boucherie works closely with Elsevier's journal publishers, editors and authors at one end and with science journalists and reporters at the other end with the aim of spotlighting and promoting interesting, topical research articles. She is based in Elsevier's Amsterdam headquarters and holds a master's degree in social psychology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.


Shereen Hanafi

As Head of Marketing of Research Management at Elsevier, Shereen Hanafi (@shanafi_ELS) leads a global team responsible for the marketing efforts of the Research Intelligenceportfolio of technology solutions, including SciVal, Pure and Analytical Services. Shereen has two decades of experience in product management, marketing and corporate communications at a number of leading global technology companies. Prior to joining Elsevier in Amsterdam, she held several senior level marketing and communication roles at global satellite operators Thuraya and SES and product marketing roles at the independent software vendor Fenestrae and the Dutch telecom operator KPN.

Born and raised in Canada to Syrian parents and married to a Dutchman, Shereen is a true global citizen, holding citizenships from three countries and speaking four languages. She received an Honours Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Ottawa.

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