The advantages of interdisciplinarity in modern science
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As the increasing complexity of large-scale research requires the combined efforts of scientists with expertise in different fields, the advantages and costs of interdisciplinary scholarship have taken center stage in current debates on scientific production. Here we conduct a comparative assessment of the scientific success of specialized and interdisciplinary researchers in modern science. Drawing on comprehensive data sets on scientific production, we propose a two-pronged approach to interdisciplinarity. For each scientist, we distinguish between background interdisciplinarity, rooted in knowledge accumulated over time, and social interdisciplinarity, stemming from exposure to collaborators' knowledge. We find that, while abandoning specialization in favor of moderate degrees of background interdisciplinarity deteriorates performance, very interdisciplinary scientists outperform specialized ones, at all career stages. Moreover, successful scientists tend to intensify the heterogeneity of collaborators and to match the diversity of their network with the diversity of their background. Collaboration sustains performance by facilitating knowledge diffusion, acquisition and creation. Successful scientists tend to absorb a larger fraction of their collaborators' knowledge, and at a faster pace, than less successful ones. Collaboration also provides successful scientists with opportunities for the cross-fertilization of ideas and the synergistic creation of new knowledge. These results can inspire scientists to shape successful careers, research institutions to develop effective recruitment policies, and funding agencies to award grants of enhanced impact.