Sustainability Science

, Volume 7, Issue 1, pp 67–80 | Cite as

How interdisciplinary is sustainability research? Analyzing the structure of an emerging scientific field

  • Ethan D. Schoolman
  • Jeremy S. Guest
  • Kathleen F. Bush
  • Andrew R. BellEmail author
Original Article


Sustainability research is expected to incorporate concepts, methods, and data from a diverse array of academic disciplines. We investigate the extent to which sustainability research lives up to this ideal of an interdisciplinary field. Using bibliometric data, we orient our study around the “tripartite model” of sustainability, which suggests that sustainability research should draw from the three “pillars” of the environmental, economic, and social sciences. We ask three questions: (i) is sustainability research truly more interdisciplinary than research generally, (ii) to what extent does research grounded in one pillar draw on research from the other two, and (iii) if certain disciplines or pillars are more interdisciplinary than others, then what explains this variation? Our results indicate that sustainability science, while more interdisciplinary than other scientific fields, falls short of the expectations inherent in the tripartite model. The pillar with the fewest articles published on sustainability—economics—is also the most integrative, while the pillar with the most articles—environmental sciences—draws the least from outside disciplines. But interdisciplinarity comes at a cost: sustainability research in economics and the social sciences is centered around a relatively small number of interdisciplinary journals, which may be becoming less valued over time. These findings suggest that, if sustainability research is to live up to its interdisciplinary ideals, researchers must be provided with greater incentives to draw from fields other than their own.


Sustainability science Sustainable Bibliometric Interdisciplinarity Academia Citation analysis 



We gratefully acknowledge the financial support from the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, which provided facilities for group meetings and partial funding for each author. We would also like to thank our colleagues, Graham Fellows, Graham Institute External Advisory Board Members, and the anonymous reviewers that offered input on the development of this work.

Supplementary material

11625_2011_139_MOESM1_ESM.doc (88 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOC 87 kb)


  1. Adams WM (2006) The future of sustainability: re-thinking environment and development in the twenty-first century. Report of the IUCN Renowned Thinkers Meeting, 29–31 January 2006, IUCNGoogle Scholar
  2. Bäckstrand K (2003) Civic science for sustainability: reframing the role of experts, policy-makers and citizens in environmental governance. Glob Environ Politics 3:24–41CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bailey KD (1983) Sociological entropy theory: toward a statistical and verbal congruence. Qual Quant 18:113–133CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Becher T, Trowler PR (2001) Academic tribes and territories: intellectual enquiry and the culture of disciplines. Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, Philadelphia, PAGoogle Scholar
  5. Bruhn JG (1995) Beyond discipline: creating a culture for interdisciplinary research. Integr Physiol Behav Sci 30:331–341CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Butler D (1998) Interdisciplinary research ‘being stifled’. Nature 396:202CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Characklis GW, Adriaens P, Braden JB, Davis J, Hamilton B, Hughes JB, Small MJ, Wolfe J (2011) Increasing the role of economics in environmental research (or moving beyond the mindset that economics = accounting). Environ Sci Technol 45:6235–6236CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Clark WC (2007) Sustainability science: a room of its own. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104(6):1737–1738CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Clark WC, Dickson NM (2003) Sustainability science: the emerging research program. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100(14):8059–8061CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Committee on Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research and Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (2005) Facilitating interdisciplinary research. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  11. Costanza R, Stern D, Fisher B, He L, Ma C (2004) Influential publications in ecological economics: a citation analysis. Ecol Econ 50:261–292CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Elkington J (1998) Cannibals with forks: the triple bottom line of the 21st century. New Society Publishers, Gabriola IslandGoogle Scholar
  13. Elsevier (2010) Bibliometrics. Retrieved December 12, 2010, from
  14. Fujigaki Y, Leydesdorff L (2000) Quality control and validation boundaries in a triple helix of university-industry-government: “Mode 2” and the future of university research. Soc Sci Inform 39:635–655CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gill J (2005) An entropy measure of uncertainty in vote choice. Elect Stud 24:371–392CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Holling CS (2001) Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological, and social systems. Ecosystems 4(5):390–405CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Janssen MA (2007) An update on the scholarly networks on resilience, vulnerability, and adaptation within the human dimensions of global environmental change. Ecol Soc 12:9Google Scholar
  18. Janssen MA, Schoon ML, Ke W, Börner K (2006) Scholarly networks on resilience, vulnerability and adaptation within the human dimensions of global environmental change. Glob Environ Change 16(3):240–252CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Jerneck A, Olsson L, Ness B, Anderberg S, Baier M, Clark E, Hickler T, Hornborg A, Kronsell A, Lövbrand E, Persson J (2011) Structuring sustainability science. Sustain Sci 6:69–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kajikawa Y (2008) Research core and framework of sustainability science. Sustain Sci 3:215–239CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kajikawa Y, Ohno J, Takeda Y, Matsushima K, Komiyama H (2007) Creating an academic landscape of sustainability science: an analysis of the citation network. Sustain Sci 2(2):221–231CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kastenhofer K, Rammel C (2005) Obstacles to and potentials of the societal implementation of sustainable development: a comparative analysis of two case studies. Sustain Sci Pract Policy 1(2):5–13Google Scholar
  23. Kates RW, Clark WC, Corell R, Hall JM, Jaeger CC, Lowe I, McCarthy JJ, Schellnhuber HJ, Bolin B, Dickson NM, Faucheux S, Gallopin GC, Grübler A, Huntley B, Jäger J, Jodha NS, Kasperson RE, Mabogunje A, Matson P, Mooney H, Moore B III, O’Riordan T, Svedin U (2001) Sustainability science. Science 292(5517):641–642CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Kaufman S, Kwon E, Krishnan N, Castaldi M, Themelis N (2008) Use of statistical entropy and life cycle analysis to evaluate global warming potential of waste management systems. In: Proceedings of the 16th Annual North American Waste-to-Energy Conference (NAWTEC 16), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 2008, pp 107–112Google Scholar
  25. Kim KH, Jeon BJ, Jung HS, Lu W, Jones J (2011) Effective employment brand equity through sustainable competitive advantage, marketing strategy, and corporate image. J Bus Res (in press)Google Scholar
  26. Koehler DA, Hecht AD (2006) Sustainability, well being, and environmental protection: perspectives and recommendations from an Environmental Protection Agency forum. Sustain Sci Pract Policy 2(2):22–28Google Scholar
  27. Komiyama H, Takeuchi K (2006) Sustainability science: building a new discipline. Sustain Sci 1:1–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kostoff RN (2002) Overcoming specialization. BioScience 52:937–941CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Leydesdorff L, Schank T (2008) Dynamic animations of journal maps: indicators of structural changes and interdisciplinary developments. J Am Soc Inf Sci Technol 59:1810–1818CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Leydesdorff L, Moya-Anegón FD, Guerrero-Bote VP (2010) Journal maps on the basis of Scopus data: a comparison with the Journal Citation Reports of the ISI. J Am Soc Inf Sci Technol 61:352–369Google Scholar
  31. Ma C, Stern DI (2006) Environmental and ecological economics: a citation analysis. Ecol Econ 58:491–506CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Metzger N, Zare RN (1999) Interdisciplinary research: from belief to reality. Science 283(5402):642–643CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Nakamura H, Suzuki S, Hironori T, Kajikawa Y, Sakata I (2011) Citation lag analysis in supply chain research. Scientometrics 87:221–232CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Nelson B (2011) Interdisciplinary studies: seeking the right toolkit. Nature 476:115–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Nyhus PJ, Westley FR, Lacy RC, Miller PS (2002) A role for natural resource social science in biodiversity risk assessment. Soc Nat Resour 15(10):923–932CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Office of Government Commerce (OGC) (2007) Achieving excellence in construction procurement guide: sustainability. HM Treasury, LondonGoogle Scholar
  37. Ostrom E (2009) A general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems. Science 325(5939):419–422CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Paternoster R, Brame R, Mazerolle P, Piquero A (1998) Using the correct statistical test for the equality of regression coefficients. Criminology 36:859–866CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Porter AL, Chubin DE (1985) An indicator of cross-disciplinary research. Scientometrics 8(3–4):161–176CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Porter AL, Rafols I (2009) Is science becoming more interdisciplinary? Measuring and mapping six research fields over time. Scientometrics 81:719–745CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Porter AL, Roessner JD, Cohen AS, Perreault M (2006) Interdisciplinary research: meaning, metrics and nurture. Res Eval 15:187–195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Porter AL, Cohen AS, Roessner JD, Perreault M (2007) Measuring researcher interdisciplinarity. Scientometrics 72:117–147CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Porter AL, Roessner JD, Heberger AE (2008) How interdisciplinary is a given body of research? Res Eval 17:273–282CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Qian C, Chan C-Y, Yung K-L (2011) Reaching a destination earlier by starting later: revisited. Transport Res E Log Trans Rev 47:641–647CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Rafols I, Meyer M (2010) Diversity and network coherence as indicators of interdisciplinarity: case studies in bionanoscience. Scientometrics 82:263–287CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Sá CM (2008) ‘Interdisciplinary strategies’ in U.S. research universities. High Educ 55(5):537–552CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Swart RJ, Raskin P, Robinson J (2004) The problem of the future: sustainability science and scenario analysis. Glob Environ Chang 14:137–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Tomov DT, Mutafov HG (1996) Comparative indicators of interdisciplinarity in modern science. Scientometrics 37:267–278CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. United Nations General Assembly (2005) 2005 World Summit Outcome. Resolution A/60/1:38Google Scholar
  50. van Leeuwen T, Tijssen R (2000) Interdisciplinary dynamics of modern science: analysis of cross-disciplinary citation flows. Res Eval 9:183–187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Wiek A, Withycombe L, Redman C, Mills SB (2011) Moving forward on competence in sustainability research and problem solving. Environ Sci Policy Sustain Dev 53:3–13CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Willard B (2002) The sustainability advantage: seven business case benefits of a triple bottom line. New Society Publishers, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  53. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) (1987) Our common future. United NationsGoogle Scholar
  54. Yarime M, Takeda Y, Kajikawa Y (2010) Towards institutional analysis of sustainability science: a quantitative examination of the patterns of research collaboration. Sustain Sci 5(1):115–125CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Integrated Research System for Sustainability Science, United Nations University, and Springer 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ethan D. Schoolman
    • 1
  • Jeremy S. Guest
    • 2
  • Kathleen F. Bush
    • 3
  • Andrew R. Bell
    • 4
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Sociology, College of Literature, Science, and the ArtsUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, College of EngineeringUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  3. 3.Department of Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public HealthUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  4. 4.Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Earth InstituteColumbia UniversityPalisadesUSA

Personalised recommendations