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Interprofessionalism — What Can We Learn from Interdisciplinary Research?

As health professions educators consider both the potential value and practical implementation of interprofessionalism in their institutions, we have much to learn from the history and growing body of literature on interdisciplinary collaboration in universities. This article focuses on definitions and forms of interdisciplinary research, as well as widely viewed benefits and drivers of interdisciplinarity. Our summer newsletter will extend this overview with a look at barriers to interdisciplinary efforts and ways to overcome them.

Just as interprofessionalism involves more than one of the health sciences, interdisciplinary research and education entail two or more of the traditionally designated academic disciplines. These disciplines became institutionalized as university departments in the 1890s, and as the number of disciplines expanded in the 20th century, each developed as an increasingly specialized knowledge and practice, with its own language, research methodologies, standards and protocols, associations, conferences, and publications. This disciplinary structure largely continues today, so that most of us likely received our undergraduate and even graduate degrees in a single academic discipline.

In discussing activities that cross disciplinary borders, researchers distinguish between multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary efforts. Multidisciplinarity involves “two or more divergent disciplines, which approach a research problem by using their own framings and methods, at a level that requires cooperation” and moving toward “aligned but separate goals,” as Siedlok and Hibbert explain in their literature review.1 By contrast, in interdisciplinarity, the separate disciplines go beyond cooperation to collaboration and integrated effort toward a common goal. In Siedlok and Hibbert’s words, “the perspectives are combined to provide a synthesized, systematic approach and a collective outcome.” The notion of integrated effort is also key to the definition of interdisciplinary research developed by the Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research, established by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine: “a mode of research by teams or individuals that integrates information, data, techniques, tools, perspectives, concepts, and/or theories from two or more disciplines or bodies of specialized knowledge to advance fundamental understanding or to solve problems whose solutions are beyond the scope of a single discipline or area of research practice.”2 Note that none of these definitions suggests individual disciplines abandon their distinctiveness or autonomy as separate units; rather, the focus is on making use of knowledge and practices developed within those units for collaborative discovery and learning.

Yet, like interprofessionalism, interdisciplinarity comes in many varieties. Siedlok and Hibbert draw useful distinctions that illuminate the range of possibilities. First, they define a spectrum based on the context and durability of research integration. At the spectrum’s lower end are one-time “project-based collaborations,” which are “transient and problem-oriented,” while the upper end context is “the disciplinary community itself” including researchers who “engage repeatedly in interdisciplinary research in the long term,” often in research clusters or centers. A second distinction involves the process by which integration occurs. Siedlok and Hibbert distinguish between knowledge exchange, in which “knowledge is transferred from one discipline to another, either to solve a problem or to develop the receiving discipline,” and knowledge creation, in which “knowledge from two disciplines is connected together to produce new understandings or applications.”

Combining these two distinctions leads Siedlok and Hibbert to propose a grid of four modes of interdisciplinary integration: (1) knowledge exchange between disciplines at the short-term project level, (2) knowledge exchange between disciplines at the long-term community level, (3) knowledge creation generated by short-term interdisciplinary projects, and (4) knowledge creation generated by longer term interdisciplinary communities. In health professions terms, I might, for example, categorize as mode (1) a course in which dental faculty teach pediatric nursing students to perform an infant oral health exam, whereas a research project in which nursing and dental faculty members work together to to improve the oral health literacy of  new mothers in a community falls into mode (3). Should those faculty members continue meeting over time, perhaps with institutional and grant support, to develop a series of collaborative studies that create new knowledge about infant oral health care, their efforts would extend into mode (4).

Taxonomies like this have begun to emerge in the scholarly literature along with the past decade’s flowering of national attention to interdisciplinarity (and interprofessionalism). Interprofessionalism has not replaced interdisciplinarity. In 2005, the National Academies of Science and the Association of American Universities released reports calling on universities to “reshape themselves to break the structural barriers that prevent researchers from engaging in interdisciplinary collaborations.”3 The National Academies urged universities to evolve into “institutions ‘without walls,’” with “a high degree of flexibility and mobility for students and faculty, and research efforts . . . organized around problems rather than disciplines” (qtd. in Sá). Likewise, a 2006 NIH report “affirmed the agency’s commitment to lowering the ‘artificial organizational barriers’ of the disciplines.”4 And these national statements are reflected in grant priorities for funding bodies ranging from the NIH and the National Science Foundation to private foundations. While some universities have a long tradition of commitment to interdisciplinarity, drivers like these are motivating many more to establish initiatives supporting interdisciplinary research and education. Brown University’s new model (supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) in which students simultaneously pursue graduate degrees in two different fields is a recent example.5

The assumption underlying all these efforts is that interdisciplinary research and education lead to enhanced creativity and innovation. A major driver is the widespread recognition that solving complex problems requires expertise from multiple disciplines—as well as current and future researchers’ being comfortable crossing disciplinary borders. Issues of the environment, poverty, national security, and, yes, health care involve a broad range of stakeholders and interests as well as disciplines and must therefore be addressed with an equally broad range of tools, methods, and practices.

At the individual level, faculty and students report being energized by interdisciplinary research. The Chronicle of Higher Education article on the Brown program also quotes an official saying students in Virginia Tech’s interdisciplinary programs “have more than just the job market on their minds”; rather, she says, “they want to do something meaningful and are trying to fix big problems such as food or health care.” Evidence of this driver for interdisciplinarity is largely anecdotal so far, although one study that surveyed natural and social science researchers on environmental projects found “the formulation of new perspectives and intellectual stimulation was most frequently identified as the greatest reward.”6 Another study by a group of early-career researchers identified many benefits, including helping them “understand the wider impact of their research and their ‘home’ discipline while also contributing to wider societal questions”; “enhanc[ing] their ability to ask innovative questions with wider impact”; and aiding their “career progression by increasing their potential to secure funding.”7

I suggest health professions educators ask themselves if the definitional concepts and drivers of interdisciplinary collaboration outlined here can further their thinking about interprofessional education. Such types of knowledge exchange and creation are, after all, what being part of a community of learning is all about.


Siedlok F, Hibbert P. “The Organization of Interdisciplinary Research: Modes, Drivers, and Barriers.” International Journal of Management Reviews 16, no. 2 (2014): 194-210.

National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine. Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005.

Sá CM. “‘Interdisciplinary Strategies’ in U.S. Research Universities.” Higher Education 55 (2008): 537-552.

Harris M. “Interdisciplinary Study and Collaboration: A Case Study of American Research Universities.” Journal of Research Administration 41, no. 1 (2010): 22-34.

Patel V. “Brown U. Tests Approach to Interdisciplinary Graduate Work.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 28, 2014: A14.

Roy ED, Morzillo AT, Seijo F, et al. “The Elusive Pursuit of Interdisciplinarity at the Human-Environment Interface.” BioScience 63, no. 9 (2013): 745-753.

Bridle H, Vrieling A, Cardillo M, et al. “Preparing for an Interdisciplinary Future: A Perspective from Early-Career Researchers.” Futures 53 (2013): 22-32.

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