Transdisciplinary research (TDR) is discussed as a promising approach in land-use science and spatial research to address complex multifaceted “real-world problems” and to design strategies and solutions for sustainable development. TDR has become a widespread research approach in sustainability science and is increasingly promoted by research programmes and agencies (e.g., Future Earth and Horizon 2020). Against this backdrop, TDR can be considered a (social) innovation in the academic system, which is currently in the midst of an up-scaling diffusion process from a rather small TDR-advocating expert community to a broader science-practice community. We argue that this up-scaling phase also places TDR in a critical state as the concept potentially risks a type of “rhetorical mainstreaming”. The objectives of this study were to analyse how the challenging approach of TDR is currently adopted and implemented in the field of land-use research and to identify potential influencing factors. We studied 13 transdisciplinary research projects from Germany by performing qualitative interviews with coordinators, document analysis and participatory observation during meetings over a period of five years. Results show that the adoption level of the TDR concept varied widely among the studied projects, as did the adoption of the TDR indicators used in our analysis. In many of the investigated projects, we identified a clear lack of conceptual knowledge of TDR. In addition, we found that current academic structures limit the ability of researchers to thoroughly adapt to the requirements of TDR. We conclude that further communication and educational efforts that promote TDR are required. In addition, we advocate for the development of suitable funding instruments that support sustained research structures.
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