Open Access and Interdisciplinary Research Support Each Other

Interdisciplinary research is on the rise. It’s ideal for tackling global issues like climate change that transcend the boundaries of disciplines and require a concerted approach. However, for interdisciplinary research to work, scholarly research needs to be available. Open Access boosts the capabilities of interdisciplinary research by ensuring there are no barriers to the research.

Here, we’ll investigate what interdisciplinary research is, its growth, and its relationship with Open Access.

Scientific disciplines

A scientific discipline is a specialised field of knowledge. Each discipline includes its own tradition, vocabulary, ways of working, and contributions to society.

They are valuable as structures that provide order, purpose, and direction to research. However, for the same reasons, they can be limiting because they isolate researchers and departments. Biologists submitting research with highly specialised terminology in biology journals will not be exposed to nor understand chemistry research published in chemistry journals.

For issues that require multifaceted approaches, researchers need to work together despite their disciplinary differences.

Overcoming disciplinary boundaries

Researchers have come up with different ways to tackle multifaceted issues. Here are some examples:

  • Multidisciplinary research draws on knowledge from different disciplines but stays within their boundaries. It adds the knowledge of other fields to a discipline.
  • Transdisciplinary research integrates disciplines into another context and transcends their traditional boundaries. It aims for a holistic approach.
  • Interdisciplinary research analyses and harmonises links between disciplines into a coordinated whole. It is an interactive approach.

All these approaches aim to solve real-world or complex problems. Interdisciplinary research stands out because it is more cooperative, and involves scientists from different disciplines coming together, pooling their knowledge and skills.

Interdisciplinarity in practice

A helpful example of interdisciplinary research is the field of oceanography.

Oceanography covers all aspects of the ocean. It transcends disciplinary boundaries to focus on a common issue. Scientists, among many other things, look at natural components, like seawater and living creatures, study currents and movements, such as fluid dynamics, and use modelling approaches such as finite element analysis to combine different elements.

This requires expertise in biology, physics, and chemistry, and all their respective subdisciplines. Scientists can even bring in economics to see how consumer habits correlate with plastic pollution or philosophy to see how our attitudes towards the ocean have changed through time.

Interdisciplinary research thus enables the coming together of experts with different specialities around a common aim.

The growth of interdisciplinary research

A study shows that, since the mid-1980s, research papers have increasingly cited work outside their own disciplines. This has only accelerated in the 21st century. The same study also shows that interdisciplinary work gains more citations in the long term and can have broad societal and economic impacts that are not captured by citations.

Technological developments, especially the Internet, have lessened the geographical and institutional boundaries that restricted scientists before. Video calls, data sharing, search engines, databases, and online publishing mean ideas are easier and quicker to share.


What are some of the advantages of interdisciplinary research?

  • Encourages an active exchange of knowledge: Scientists can pool their skills and knowledge to produce fresh insights and creative solutions.
  • Addresses complex global issues: Complex issues require complex approaches. By working across disciplinary boundaries, scientists can make their approaches more sophisticated.
  • Leads to the creation of new scientific fields: Cooperating can inspire the development of new fields of inquiry that can produce new solutions.

The European Union’s Horizon and US National Science Foundation both recognise the value of interdisciplinarity. Both give high priority to research that is interdisciplinary when allocating funding, precisely because it is so apt for dealing with complex problems.

Open Access also removes barriers

The landmark Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) outlined the benefits of removing barriers to scholarly research. The governing impulse was for Open Access to “lay the foundation for uniting humanity in a common intellectual conversation and quest for knowledge”.

This idea of removing barriers and fostering a common intellectual conversation aligns very neatly with the impulse behind interdisciplinarity. Science is valuable precisely because it can help us deal with problems that impact the world and its citizens. Therefore, removing any barriers that slow this down is valuable.

Interdisciplinary research and Open Access

Both Open Access and interdisciplinary research seek to transcend the barriers and boundaries that limit research. How can they work together for this common aim?

A researcher in the MDPI journal Publications explored this question. Let’s delve into what they found.

Researchers need access to research

The author explains how interdisciplinarity is not just hard “but it is actually impossible to do when one does not have access to the relevant scholarship”.

Subscription fees and pay-to-access systems put a strain on institutions and cause imbalances between them based on their budgets. Through the 20th century, subscription costs for publication rose much faster than inflation, triggering the “serials crisis”. The average price of academic journals increased by 226% between 1986 and 2001 alone, and they remain high.

The study in Publications highlights how bibliographies, footnotes, and endnotes paint a picture of the boundaries of access. In any paper, the author had to access all the cited books and articles to construct their own. Researchers can then follow the different research paths all these sources lead to.

That is, if they don’t encounter barriers. Access to research is vital for producing more. Open Access ensures that researchers can access whatever research they need, whenever they need it. This prevents them from exclusively reading the research they know will be valuable and missing out on riskier avenues that could lead to innovation.

Unexpected readers

The author describes the value of “unexpected readers”. These are readers who aren’t necessarily the target audience but can benefit from access.

They use an analogy: Isaac Newton was a mathematician and physicist. He walked in his garden and an apple fell on his head, which led to him formulating his gravitational theory. He was not there to study gardens nor apples, but his being there enabled the chance event of an apple falling that led to his revolutionary realisation.

They explain: “Without the material conditions in place to allow for their possibilities, chance discoveries cannot take place”.

Climate change is common ground

Search engines and databases put this analogy to practice. They blur the distinctions of disciplines and focus on common aims. If a researcher searches “climate change”, they will be able to access everything written on that topic. They have access to any garden, thus increasing the chances of a chance discovery that could be revolutionary.

Issues like climate change are all-encompassing. They transcend the boundaries of institutions, disciplines, class, and nationality. They affect everyone and everything.

Complex issues require all disciplines to come together, and they require innovative solutions now.

This only works if research is Open Access. It enables scientists from one field to access the insights of other disciplines and build from them. Also, teams can form around common aims without the burden of accumulating large subscription fees for the diverse research they need access to.

Then, cooperation can lead to the innovation we need.

Open Access enables interdisciplinary research

In short, when tackling complex global issues, interdisciplinary research is vital. But researchers need to be able to access research for it to work. Open Access supports interdisciplinarity because it makes research accessible to all readers at no cost.

MDPI makes all its research immediately available worldwide, giving readers free and unlimited access to the full text of all published articles. It has over 400 journals dedicated to providing the latest findings, many of which publish interdisciplinary research. If you’re interested in submitting your work, see our full list of journals here.

Interdisciplinary research is dedicated to removing the barriers of disciplines so we can tackle the complex challenges we face. Open Access ensures there are no barriers along the way.