Prominent but Less Productive: The Impact of Interdisciplinarity on Scientists’ Research

Inter-disciplinary research (IDR) is being promoted by federal agencies and universities nationwide because it presumably spurs transformative, innovative science. In this paper we bring empirical data to assess whether IDR is indeed beneficial, and whether costs accompany potential benefits. Existing research highlights this tension: whereas the innovation literature suggests that spanning disciplines is beneficial because it allows scientists to see connections across fields, the categories literature suggests that spanning disciplines is penalized, because the resulting research may be lower quality or confusing to place.

To investigate this, we empirically distinguish production and reception effects and we highlight a new production penalty: cognitive and collaborative challenges associated with IDR may result in slower progress, hurdles during peer review, and lower productivity (though not necessarily lower quality).

We compile and analyze data on almost 900 research center-based scientists and their 32,000 published articles. Using an innovative measure of IDR that considers the similarity of the disciplines spanned, we document both penalties (fewer papers published) and benefits (increased visibility) associated with IDR, and show that it is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor. These costs and benefits depend on characteristics of the field and a scientist’s place in it.