Intensive disciplinarity in electronic services for research and education: Building systems responsive to intellectual tradition and scholarly culture

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Marshall McLuhan said that people understand technological innovation "through the rearview mirror"; that is, that new technologies are comprehensible to the extent that they can be placed within the framework of existing structures of sensibility. Nearly a decade has passed since we first argued the benefits of modeling electronic resources in academe on the structural features of the disciplines they are intended to serve (Stephen and Harrison, 1993a, 1993b) and during that time McLuhan's maxim has guided our work as designers of electronic services for the communication field. Here's the story: in 1986 we launched an online information system for the field of human communication studies (human interaction, rhetoric, journalism, speech, mass communication, etc.). In building that network resource center for communication scholars and students, we took for granted the importance of disciplinarity, but we never fully imagined how adherence to this principle would pay off for the communication field fifteen years later. We feel more strongly than ever that there are significant advantages to a disciplinary approach to electronic services supporting advanced scholarship and higher education.

In the sciences and humanities, "the discipline" is the operant organizational construct. Yet only a few large-scale projects have evolved with a specifically disciplinary focus. There are of course many examples of useful Web resources designed to serve particular academic subjects, but very few examples of broad, multimodal services and archives of significant depth that encompass the boundaries of an entire discipline without exceeding them. The Web site of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) provides an example of the breadth and depth we have in mind. NIH's services link large and diverse collections of resources designed specifically to support and enhance the wide-ranging needs of medical research and practice. In surveying the range of well-known database services for scholars, we note that many either opt for interdisciplinarity without providing sufficiently fine categorization to allow scholars to focus on issues as they are manifest within a particular discipline, or they provide resources covering only a single modality of a discipline's scholarly communication (e.g., article abstracts, e-mail discussion archives, collections of links to other Web sites, collections of pedagogical resources, etc.). This article discusses some of the limitations inherent in global approaches to services for scholars and educators, introduces our model of intensive disciplinarity, and sketches some of the unforeseen benefits yielded by this model in the suite of services we provide for scholars and students in the communication field.



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