7.5.2Interdisciplinarity involving the SSH


The concept of interdisciplinarity

Interdisciplinary research also allows the boundaries of the various disciplines to be crossed. These assumptions are reflected in the definition of interdisciplinary research put forward by the US National Academies of Sciences (2005), which is commonly referenced in policy documents, bibliometrics and research evaluation:

Interdisciplinary research is 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.

In other words, knowledge integration is central to interdisciplinary research.

Is SSH research becoming more interdisciplinary?

Although many disciplines in SSH have interdisciplinary origins since the early establishment, only few quantitative assessments and monitoring of interdisciplinarity in SSH can be found in the literature, compared to that of STEM. Research that investigated the status and evolution of interdisciplinarity in SSH often adopts the generic operationalization of interdisciplinarity instead of devising some new indicators addressing the special needs of SSH. Nonetheless, an interdisciplinary evolution in the social sciences is observed by some researchers. Levitt et al. (2011) found that IDR in the social sciences and its disciplines experienced a declining trend in the 1980s and a sharp rise in the 1990s. Zhou et al. (2021) examine the disciplinary diversity in the references of 300 thousand publications between 1960 and 2009 from five SSH disciplines to infer the evolution of interdisciplinarity. They find that research in the SSH are adopting a broader yet more specialized knowledge base in recent years.

Challenges for estimating interdisciplinarity of SSH research

In part 2 we have shown that communication practices in SSH are different from STEM, and there are many differences between and even within SSH disciplines. Additionally, we have argued that disciplinary structure itself is prone to change. These two findings have important implications for the measurement of interdisciplinarity.

Science dynamics and its consequences. The science dynamics perspective attests that interdisciplinarity is one of the evolutionary dynamics in science. On the level of disciplines, the knowledge of two or more disciplines is coupled and integrated to face a complex research problem. If successful, such an integrative event might lead to the emergence of a new research specialty and, later on, a discipline. Existing indicators of interdisciplinarity may not fully capture this subtlety: “The diversity and coherence indicators depend on boundaries between fields, and […]generally deploys the top-down fixed (WoS) subject categories. This implies that the dynamics of the disciplinary landscape is not taken into account, when calculating diversity and coherence” (Vugteveen et al., 2014, p. 75). An alternative might be to step away from pre-specified classification schemes, and start from the data (bottom-up instead of top-down by mapping relations between documents). For instance, the classification system of Microsoft Academic Graph (MAG) used by Zhou et al. (2021) is based on such bottom-up relations.

Current indicators of interdisciplinary do not always account for disciplinary change. The scientific landscape is constantly evolving and our proxies for disciplines are trying to keep up with this fast paced world. The results of interdisciplinary endeavors might for example be absorbed by an existing field rather quickly (Besselaar, 2019) and may not clearly manifest in disciplinary classifications.

Differences in communication practices among disciplines. Many indicators that are currently in use rely on citation data. Since citation practices are not uniform across all fields of science, specific care should be taken to ensure that the SSH are adequately represented. Professionally oriented research in the social sciences, concerned with solving local societal issues, for example, might often be published in professional journals that are not indexed in international commercial citation databases. Some newer citation databases, like MAG or Dimensions, try to capture a broader range of publications and publication channels, although the problem is not yet fully solved. On the other hand, institutional or national databases tend to have better coverage, but usually lack citation data.