Growth in interdisciplinarity mapped to mark 150 years of Nature

Rise in interactions means three times more disciplines represented in references and citations per paper than 50 years ago

November 6, 2019
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Academic papers are influenced and impacted by about three times more disciplines today than they were 50 years ago, according to an analysis of interdisciplinarity to mark 150 years of the journal Nature.

Researchers from the Network Science Institute at Northeastern University in the US were asked to examine data on tens of millions of articles indexed in the Web of Science database from 1900 to 2017 for the anniversary of the world-famous scientific publication.

The analysis explored how relationships between disciplines have changed over the decades in three ways: the breadth of subjects tackled in journals (multidisciplinarity); the diversity of disciplines in articles’ references and citations (interdisciplinarity); and how often papers are influenced by one discipline but impact another (cross-disciplinarity).

On multidisciplinarity, the analysis finds that today a typical journal “publishes articles inspired by and impacting about six disciplines”, something that has barely changed since the 1960s, with general science journals such as Nature inevitably covering a greater breadth of subjects.

But on interdisciplinarity, the scientists say in a comment piece about the analysis, the “diversity of disciplines in articles’ references and citations is increasing”.

“Roughly speaking, a typical article is inspired by and impacts three times more disciplines this decade than it did 50 years ago”, with articles in Nature tending to reference fewer subjects on average but impacting more.

Meanwhile, the degree of cross-disciplinarity has been falling over the past few decades, with the authors suggesting that “as works draw on a broader set of disciplines, there is less scope to influence a set of completely different disciplines”.

The authors say that the increasing interaction between disciplines raises questions about how science is evaluated and organised, adding that “strictly structured research departments and funding programmes make less sense if boundaries between disciplines are becoming less distinct”.

“With the population of researchers, scientific literature and knowledge ever growing, the scientific endeavour increasingly integrates across boundaries. Research institutions and funding bodies would do well to realize that interdisciplinarity is becoming the norm.”

Elsewhere, the Nature issue carries a visualisation on its front cover of how almost 90,000 articles published in its pages since 1900 interconnect in terms of discipline, as well as a separate analysis of how publications in the journal have changed over the years.

This shows how the proportion of female authors and the number of countries publishing in Nature have shifted as well as the number of authors per paper. For example, a Nature article in medicine and health now features about 16 contributors on average.

It also looks at how the five most frequent keywords in titles and abstracts have changed, with “Sun” and “Earth” being the among the most used in the 1870s and terms such as “quantum” and “DNA” being some of the top five in the 2010s.

In an editorial for its 150th anniversary, the journal says it will “continue in our mission to stand up for research, serve the global research community and communicate the results of science around the world”.

But it also refers to the pressing need “perhaps now more than ever” for researchers and publishers to “acknowledge, and implement, our responsibility to society. We must commit to greater openness and ensure that findings are reproducible, and we must act with integrity at all times.”

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