Does interdisciplinary research lead to higher citation impact? The different effect of proximal and distal interdisciplinary

Alfredo Yegros-Yegros; Ismael Rafols; Pablo D’Este
Plos One
This article analyses the effect of degree of interdisciplinarity on the citation impact of individual publications for four different scientific fields. We operationalise interdisciplinarity as disciplinary diversity in the references of a publication, and rather than treating interdisciplinarity as a monodimensional property, we investigate the separate effect of different aspects of diversity on citation impact: i.e. variety, balance and disparity. We use a Tobit regression model to examine the effect of these properties of interdisciplinarity on citation impact, controlling for a range of variables associated with the characteristics of publications. We find that variety has a positive effect on impact, whereas balance and disparity have a negative effect. Our results further qualify the separate effect of these three aspects of diversity by pointing out that all three dimensions of interdisciplinarity display a curvilinear (inverted U-shape) relationship with citation impact. These findings can be interpreted in two different ways. On the one hand, they are consistent with the view that, while combining multiple fields has a positive effect in knowledge creation, successful research is better achieved through research efforts that draw on a relatively proximal range of fields, as distal interdisciplinary research might be too risky and more likely to fail. On the other hand, these results may be interpreted as suggesting that scientific audiences are reluctant to cite heterodox papers that mix highly disparate bodies of knowledge—thus giving less credit to publications that are too groundbreaking or challenging.