Research incubator: Expert discussion

Interdisciplinarity as a Challenge for Digitization Research? Findings from the Expert:inside Discussions
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With regard to the content and organizational design of interdisciplinary research programs, expert discussions with researchers were conducted at CAIS.

Abbildung 2. Die Expert:innen-Diskussionen sind ein Baustein im Themenfindungsprozess

Due to the diversity of digital challenges, the participation of different disciplines in digitization research is inevitable. Interdisciplinarity is therefore a central keyword in numerous calls for proposals, draft programs, and (self-)descriptions of corresponding institutions.

A look at practice and academic research on interdisciplinarity shows that the views on what exactly “interdisciplinary” means and how this is implemented in academic practice are diverse (see e.g. Woiwode & Froese, 2020, Schmitt et al., in press). For the development of the research programs on developments, processes, and impacts of digitization at CAIS, we explored the following questions against this background:

  • What do researchers in digitization research understand by interdisciplinarity?
  • What organizational, social, and structural conditions must be in place for successful interdisciplinary collaboration?
  • To what extent do researchers at different career stages differ in their assessment?

In addition, our goal was to flesh out seminal topics for future CAIS research programs and to identify key disciplines that can productively participate in addressing the topics.

You can find the visualization of the whole topic finding process in this video.


Schmitt, J.B., Begenat, M., Brenker, M. & Bieber, C. (2021). Interdisziplinarität in der Digitalisierungsforschung Notwendigkeit oder leeres Versprechen für progressives wissenschaftliches Arbeiten? die hochschule.

Woiwode, H. & Froese, A. (2020). Two hearts beating in a research centers’ chest: how scholars in interdisciplinary research settings cope with monodisciplinary deep structures, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2020.1716321

Six expert discussions with researchers

A total of six expert discussions were held with 26 people (w = 13) from different disciplines and career levels (doctoral students, postdocs, professors). Two expert discussions were held per career level. The discussion rounds were each composed of participants from the same career level. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussions took place online.

Coexistence vs. integration: interdisciplinarity is understood and lived differently by researchers

The vagueness of the concept of interdisciplinarity is reflected explicitly and implicitly in the discussion groups. The majority of the interviewees understand interdisciplinarity more as a coexistence than as a cooperation (integration) of disciplinary approaches in answering research questions. Compared to professors and postdocs, the statements of doctoral students point to a much more integrative understanding of interdisciplinarity. In other words, they tend to pursue the genuine integration of knowledge and the softening of disciplinary boundaries in the context of their scientific work. They seem to act more in terms of a specific collective research interest. At the same time, they document more initiative and thematic motivation for interdisciplinary work. Professors, on the other hand, tend to understand interdisciplinarity in terms of “importing” theories, concepts and methods from other disciplines and adapting them to their own disciplinary context.

Interdisciplinary research: More Challenge than Opportunity?

Overall, the interviewed researchers mention more challenges than opportunities of interdisciplinary research. Challenges are located both on the individual and on the structural level. The individual challenges include needs that arise from the concrete interdisciplinary work context, such as finding a common language. The structural challenges include the impermeable association structures of the disciplines and a lack of representation of interdisciplinarity in the (German) science system. Another important structural challenge results from the rigid subject structures, namely the lack of interdisciplinary publication possibilities.

It is seen as an opportunity that interdisciplinary work supports the further development of disciplines. Thus, the strengths of individual subjects can be combined for one’s own subject. Furthermore, the confrontation with other disciplinary perspectives is beneficial for the individual development of the researchers: Once a common understanding of theories, data and methods has been found, interdisciplinary research can be individually very enriching and inspiring. This creates competitive advantages for the institutions at which the researchers work.

Digital participation as a central topic of interdisciplinary research

With a view to the future of digitization research, the respondents focus on aspects of digital participation, participation and exclusion for researchers. Figure 1 (see right margin column) gives an impression of the topic milieus resulting from the discussions. A combination of social science and technology-related disciplines is particularly promising for researching such phenomena. However, legal expertise and experience from (predominantly educational) practice are also considered to be profitable.

Structural and organizational conditions can promote interdisciplinary research

Our study provides valuable indications of how interdisciplinary research can also be designed in practical terms. Structural framework conditions that are tailored to the work situation are important. In concrete interdisciplinary work, an external authority could support the researchers in overcoming disciplinary boundaries. This refers to the guidance of a so-called facilitator, who structures the process responsibly. This targeted occupation of a generalist role enables the representatives of individual disciplines to maintain their expertise and still find a common language with regard to theories, data and methods. According to the interviewees, an integrative understanding of interdisciplinarity can be developed in this way. In the long term, however, innovative research would also require changes to “traditional” scientific structures. For example, there should be more opportunities to learn integrative interdisciplinary work, and disciplinary societies should be more open. Furthermore, research should be designed in a participatory way. This includes not only the perspectives from practice (application orientation), but also the population as a resource (citizen science).

Impulses for topic identification and research work at CAIS

In the medium and long term, the results will find their way into the organizational design of the CAIS research programs. In alignment with the results of the CAIS Real-Time Delphi study as well as the automated text analysis, the results regarding relevant research topics are in turn productively integrated into the overall structure of topic identification for the CAIS research programs.

Abbildung 1. Ein Ausschnitt der verschiedenen Themenmilieus aus den Diskussionen