A Review of the UK's Interdisciplinary Research using a Citation-based Approach

Report to the UK HE funding bodies and MRC by Elsevier

The UK higher education funding bodies and the Medical Research Council (MRC) committed Elsevier's Analytical Services to conduct a study on the UK's interdisciplinary research compared to eight countries: Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.

We use a citation-based approach to measure interdisciplinarity. The basic principle behind our approach is that, if an article cites papers that are “far away” from each other in terms of their topics, it is likely to be interdisciplinary. Otherwise, it is likely to be a monodisciplinary article. In the report, we investigate research output, citation impact and international collaboration of interdisciplinary research (IDR).

The core findings

  1. Emerging countries that have grown their research output rapidly such as China and Brazil have a higher share of IDR publications out of their total research output

    In 2009, 7.9% of all UK publications with an IDR score belonged to the world's top 10% most interdisciplinary publications. The percentage increased to 9.1% in 2013, implying a growing intensity of IDR among UK publications. This trend can also be found in all comparator countries.

    China and Brazil lead all comparator countries on this indicator from 2009-2013. In 2013, 12.3% and 11.0% of China and Brazil's publications, respectively, belong to the world's top 10% IDR papers

    The number of publications that belong to the top 10% IDR; all divisions; per country; per year in the period of 2009-2013

    Figure 1.1— The number of publications that belong to the top 10% IDR; all divisions; per country; per year in the period of 2009-2013.


  2. IDR is associated with a lower citation impact overall, but a higher level of citations in patent applications

    For all comparator countries including the UK, the FWCI of the publications that belong to the top 10% IDR is lower than that of all publications with an IDR score in the period 2009-2013. This suggests that the most interdisciplinary research has a lower citation impact than other publications.

    Despite their lower overall citation impact, IDR publications are cited more frequently in patent applications for many of the comparator countries. For example, in 2013, Germany's publications with an IDR score are cited 1.71 times more frequently in patent applications than the world average, and Germany's world's top 10% IDR publications are cited 2.24 times more frequently.

    FWCI of publications with an IDR score and FWCI of top 10% IDR; all divisions; per country; for 2009 and 2013.

    Figure 2.1— FWCI of publications with an IDR score and FWCI of top 10% IDR; all divisions; per country; for 2009 and 2013.


  3. IDR is correlated with lower levels of international collaboration, but the strength of its association with industry collaboration depends on the contextual situation of each country

    Both the UK's overall and the UK's top 10% IDR publications are highly international. In 2013, around half of the UK's publications with an IDR score involve at least one author outside of the UK. However, among the UK's publications that belong to the world's top 10% IDR, a lower percentage can be classified as international collaborations (45.5%). All comparator countries show similar patterns.

    For Germany and Japan, the top 10% IDR publications more often involve academic-corporate collaboration than the overall publications. The opposite pattern is observed for other comparator countries.

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