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Defining Interdisciplinary Research: Conclusions from a Critical Review of the Literature

To summarize findings from a systematic exploration of existing literature and views regarding interdisciplinarity, to discuss themes and components of such work, and to propose a theoretically based definition of interdisciplinary research.

Data Sources/Study Setting.
Two major data sources were used: interviews with researchers from various disciplines, and a systematic review of the education, business, and health care literature from January 1980 through January 2005.

Study Design.
Systematic review of literature, one-on-one interviews, field test (survey).

Data Collection/Extraction Methods.
We reviewed 14 definitions of interdisciplinarity, the characteristics of 42 interdisciplinary research publications from multiple fields of study, and 14 researcher interviews to arrive at a preliminary definition of interdisciplinary research. That definition was then field tested by 12 individuals with interdisciplinary research experience, and their responses incorporated into the definition of interdisciplinary research proposed in this paper.

Principal Findings.
Three key definitional characteristics were identified: the qualitative mode of research (and its theoretical underpinnings), existence of a continuum of synthesis among disciplines, and the desired outcome of the interdisciplinary research.

Existing literature from several fields did not provide a definition for interdisciplinary research of sufficient specificity to facilitate activities such as identification of the competencies, structure, and resources needed for health care and health policy research. This analysis led to the proposed definition, which is designed to aid decision makers in funding agencies/program committees and researchers to identify and take full advantage the interdisciplinary approach, and to serve as a basis for competency-based formalized training to provide researchers with interdisciplinary skills.

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