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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2009


Determining the Scope of Collection Development and Research Assistance for Cross-Disciplinary Areas: A Case Study of Two Contrasting Areas, Nanotechnology and Transportation Engineering

Jeanine M. Williamson
University of Tennessee Libraries
Knoxville, Tennessee

Lee D. Han
Civil and Environmental Engineering Department
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee

Monica Colon-Aguirre
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee

Copyright 2009, Jeanine Williamson, Lee D. Han, and Monica Colon-Aguirre. Used with permission.


The study examined the extent of cross-disciplinarity in nanotechnology and transportation engineering research. Researchers in these two fields were determined from the web sites of the U.S. News and World Report top 100 schools in civil engineering and materials science. Web of Science searches for 2006 and 2007 articles were obtained and the journals in which the articles appeared were classified using Library of Congress call numbers. Nanotechnology was found to be more cross-disciplinary than transportation engineering. Implications for collection development and research assistance were given.


Science and technology librarians are often faced with selecting materials and providing research assistance for researchers in fields of which they have little subject knowledge. Even if librarians have a sci-tech academic background, it is unlikely that they will be knowledgeable about all the specialties they must serve. Their job is complicated by the fact that many science and technology fields are cross-disciplinary. Rafols and Meyer (2007) point out that even "normal" life science fields such as biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics have a high percentage of cross-disciplinary articles in disciplinary journals. Bates stated in 1996 that research on the information seeking of interdisciplinary researchers ("people engaged in the study of fields that span two or more of the established academic disciplines") remained "woefully lacking." While researchers since then have added to the body of knowledge about interdisciplinary areas (e.g., Ackerson 2001; Spanner 2001), much remains to be studied.

The purpose of this paper is to explore approaches to collection development and research assistance for fields having different extents of cross-disciplinarity. We chose to examine nanotechnology and transportation engineering as case studies, since prima facie nanotechnology appears to be quite cross-disciplinary, and transportation engineering, less so. We hope that the observations made in this study may be of use in suggesting ways to serve other highly cross-disciplinary and less cross-disciplinary areas.

Nanotechnology research spans several disciplines. According to Berry and Williamson (2007), "nanotechnology has expanded to encompass more than the science of the very small and has come to mean many things to many people, thus making it difficult to define." Schummer (2004) used the disciplinary categories of physics, chemistry, biomedical sciences, materials science and engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, information and computer sciences, and general technology to characterize nanotechnology co-authors. There has been some debate whether nanotechnology is truly interdisciplinary. Schummer (2004), analyzing the collaboration patterns of nanoscience researchers, concludes that nanotechnology's "apparent multidisciplinarity consists of different largely mono-disciplinary fields which are rather unrelated to each other and which hardly share more than the prefix 'nano.'" However, Rafols and Meyer (2007), studying the nanotechnology field of molecular motors, point out that this field is interdisciplinary in its cognitive aspects, if not social ones. By cognitive aspects, Rafols and Meyer were referring to such things as references, methods, and instrumentalities, whereas social effects include backgrounds and affiliations of collaborators. It seems likely that cognitive aspects are of particular interest to science and technology librarians, who are focused on the intellectual content of subject areas.

Sinha et al. (2003) state: "Transportation has been one of the essential components of the civil engineering profession since its early days." The authors point out that transportation engineering today has three components:

One component involves design, construction, and maintenance of facilities, including roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, airports, transit systems, and ports and harbors. The second component encompasses planning, project development, and financing and management. The third component covers operations and logistics, including traffic engineering and operations of transit, trucking, and other facilities, as well as business logistics. Specialties have emerged in each as the profession has continued to mature. The current focus is on intermodal transportation systems that emphasize the connectivity of modes over the entire portal-to-portal trip length.

Clearly transportation engineering has several subfields, as does nanotechnology. Nevertheless, the extent of cross-disciplinarity in highly cross-disciplinary fields such as nanotechnology compared to less cross-disciplinary fields such as transportation engineering has not been examined in respect to implications for collection development and research assistance. A question for science and technology librarians is how best to serve researchers in quite cross-disciplinary and less cross-disciplinary areas.


For a review of the definitions of interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, see Holland (2008). We sidestep the issue of whether nanotechnology and transportation engineering are interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary, adopting the more general term, cross-disciplinary. Since we are interested in knowing what disciplines impinge on nanotechnology and transportation engineering -- for the purpose of determining the scope of collection development and research assistance for these subject areas -- we do not concern ourselves with this distinction of interest to sociologists of science. We notice that other library and information science researchers sometimes use the term interdisciplinary, whereas we use cross-disciplinary (e.g., Bates 1996).

Librarians encounter several challenges when supporting cross-disciplinary or interdisciplinary fields. As Lee (1995) points out in discussing the interdisciplinary field of women's studies, "the bureaucratic organization of most libraries is so inflexible that new, interdisciplinary fields cannot easily be accommodated in existing systems. Knowledge itself continually evolves and does not necessarily conform to the structures we impose." Schummer writes similarly in Scientometrics (2004):

While an ideal classification of our entire knowledge distinguishes between knowledge fields (disciplines) in each area with equal resolution and with categories adjusted to every new knowledge development, real classifications are necessarily limited. They may, for practical reasons, retain categories that are no longer adequate or neglect new areas that did not exist when the original classification system was established.

The specific problems for collection development and providing research assistance in nanotechnology and transportation engineering are the focus of this paper.

Research Questions

This study examines three questions:

  1. What is the extent of cross-disciplinarity in nanotechnology and transportation engineering research?
  1. What disciplines are related to nanotechnology and transportation engineering?
  1. How cross-disciplinary is the work of individual researchers in nanotechnology and transportation engineering?

After answering these questions, we turn to the implications for collection development and research assistance for these subject areas.


A bibliometric method was used to determine the number of publications in different disciplines by nanotechnology and transportation researchers. During the summer of 2008 we identified a non-random sample of nanotechnology and transportation engineering researchers in the top 100 civil engineering and materials science programs according to U.S. News and World Report. Only associate professors and full professors were included. We selected the first mentioned nanotechnology and transportation engineering researchers from the departmental web pages of the U.S. News and World Report listed programs. From some programs we selected additional nanotechnology and transportation engineering researchers to compensate for the fact that other programs did not include nanotechnology or transportation engineering researchers. Nanotechnology researchers (n=81) were self-identified by having a "nano" term in their research interests. Transportation engineering researchers (n=84) were selected if their descriptions included a topic of transportation engineering.

Once the researchers were identified, we performed Web of Science searches for their 2006 and 2007 publications. Publications that were not journal articles were discarded from the study. The journals in which their articles appeared were assigned Library of Congress Class letters according to Worldcat searches for the journal titles. Various analyses were performed. The number of articles in each LC class within the fields was counted. In addition, the number of LC classes in each individual researcher's work was counted. One reason why LC classes were used to characterize the cross-disciplinarity of nanotechnology and transportation engineering was that the LC classification codifies intellectual categories used by librarians. Rafols and Meyer (2007) criticize the method of using journal classification to determine cross-disciplinarity:

The latter approach has two important problems: (i) many journals are assigned to two or more related categories, not allowing a precise disciplinary distinction to be made for an important part of data; (ii) the main contribution of some articles does not fall into the same disciplinary category as the journal in which they appear.

Our method of using LC classes to reflect cross-disciplinarity is appropriate since we are primarily interested in determining the scope of collection development and research assistance in nanotechnology and transportation engineering, and LC is arranged by disciplinary classes.


Research Question 1

Figures 1 and 2 show the range of cross-disciplinarity in Nanotechnology and Transportation Engineering, respectively. Nanotechnology spans 22 LC classes, and Transportation Engineering spans 24 LC classes.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Cross-disciplinarity of Nanotechnology

Figure 2
Figure 2: Cross-disciplinarity of Transportation Engineering

Research Question 2

The disciplines that nanotechnology and transportation engineering span are also indicated by Figures 1 and 2. Nanotechnology's four most prominent disciplines are those represented by the LC Class numbers are QC (Physics), QD (Chemistry), T (Technology-General), and TA (Engineering-General. Civil Engineering. This class also includes Materials Science). Transportation Engineering's three most prominent disciplines are HE (Transportation and communications), TA (Engineering-General. Civil Engineering), and TE (Highway engineering. Roads and pavements).

Research Question 3

There were 81 nanotechnology researchers in the sample. The average number of disciplines spanned per researcher was 5.2. The average number of articles per researcher was 14.4.

There were 84 transportation engineering researchers in the sample. The average number of disciplines spanned per researcher was 2.5. The average number of articles per researcher was 4.3.


The results show that transportation engineering researchers write fewer articles and span fewer disciplines than nanotechnology researchers. This may in part be due to the fact that transportation engineering is a more mature discipline that has its main subfields adequately represented in the Library of Congress classification. Another possibility not examined in our study was that transportation engineers may write many conference papers that are not reflected in the Web of Science. Nevertheless, nanotechnology seems to be inherently more cross-disciplinary, perhaps because of its broad definition as "science of the very small" (Berry and Williamson 2007).

The number of classes spanned by nanotechnology and transportation engineering as a whole are comparable, but the number of articles per LC class is higher in nanotechnology than in transportation engineering.

The results offer several implications for collection development and research assistance to these fields. The librarian serving nanotechnology researchers will need to bring different skills to bear than one serving transportation engineers. For example, the librarian for nanotechnology may disagree with the following statement from Bowers (2007):

Librarians need to grasp the epistemological foundations of disciplinary inquiry and the practical components of the research process. Disciplines are not only distinguished by their subject fields, but also by their particular information-seeking characteristics and professional apparatus.

It may be impossible to discern the "professional apparatus" of a researcher whose individual work is published in physics, chemistry, and engineering journals. Rafols and Meyer, in their case study approach to bionanotechnology (especially molecular motors) find that laboratory teams in this field have boundary-spanning instrumentalities.

Collection development will have to be wide ranging in order to serve nanotechnology researchers. Ackerson (2001) described the problems of fracture and overload that cross-disciplinary engineering researchers face. Fracture is particularly related to collection development, referring to "the tendency for disciplinary literature to become fragmented as it is diffused into related disciplines and as new intersections are formed within a single discipline." As the literature becomes fragmented, it is harder to select materials, since they are widely dispersed. In addition, it is possible that budget streams may not reflect the cross-disciplinary state of the fields involved, creating a practical problem for funding collection development in cross-disciplinary fields such as nanotechnology (Gerhard 2000). Ackerson notes also that collection assessment tools may not exist for interdisciplinary fields, so "it is important to make sure that newly-emerging areas are added to the approval profile and that appropriate societal publications are consistently monitored." To mitigate all of these problems, librarians will need to cooperate in collection development with their colleagues. Science and Technology librarians who deal with nanotechnology may find they need quite a broad expertise to know the areas for which they must select materials. It may be impossible for them to predict what areas their faculty are going to publish in next.

By contrast, librarians serving transportation engineering will have a narrower scope when doing collection development. It is likely that they will need to develop collections in core areas. Librarians will probably be able to learn the research interests of their faculty and develop collections accordingly. There will be less need for collaboration with other librarian-colleagues.

Research assistance in nanotechnology has a wide scope compared to transportation engineering. The librarian for nanotechnology will need to have expertise with a number of interdisciplinary and specialized databases. Kushkowski (1998) et al. note the importance of consulting multiple disciplinary databases to create core journal lists in cross-disciplinary fields, and the same point holds for research assistance. Interestingly, the generalist education of the Master's in Library or Information Science may equip science and technology librarians for providing meaningful assistance to nanotechnology researchers. For example, the researcher who is incorporating instrumentalities from chemistry, physics, medicine, and engineering in his or her publications may be unaware of the fact that there are subject-based literature databases in each of these fields. Science and technology librarians could also suggest publication venues for nanotechnology researchers. Spanner (2001) notes too that one issue of concern to interdisciplinary researchers is that of "conflicting vocabularies" among the related disciplines. Librarians, with their experience using both controlled vocabularies and keywords, would be expected to be helpful in this regard.

Research assistance for transportation engineering (in comparison to nanotechnology) will most likely require a deep, rather than a wide, scope. Librarians will primarily need to know about a few literature databases, such as TRIS. Questions will not be less intricate than in nanotechnology, but the range of sources to consult may be narrower.


Determining the scope of nanotechnology and transportation engineering research allows the science and technology librarian to plan for approaches to use in providing collection development and research assistance. In a wide-ranging field like nanotechnology, librarians must have a broad vision in their choice of materials and research expertise. In a fairly comparatively narrow-ranging field like transportation engineering, librarians should focus on depth: getting to know faculty's research interests and thoroughly understanding core disciplinary resources. As we have shown in our results, nanotechnology and transportation engineering differ greatly in the extent of their cross-disciplinarity, and this is one reason why librarians must have different strategies in providing collection development and research assistance. Future research might explore whether there is a less time-intensive index of cross-disciplinarity in fields which science and technology librarians serve.

Works Cited

Ackerson, L.G. 2001. Challenges for engineering libraries: Supporting research and teaching in a cross-disciplinary environment. Science and Technology Libraries 21(1/2): 43-52.

Bates, M. J. 1996. Learning about the information seeking of interdisciplinary scholars and students. Library Trends 45(2): 155-164.

Berry, T.U. and Williamson, J.M. 2007. Nanotechnology. In: Ackerson, L.G., editor. Literature Search Strategies for Interdisciplinary Research: A Sourcebook for Scientists and Engineers; Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, p.95-111.

Bowers, J. 2007. Knowledge out of bounds: reflections on disciplinary and interdisciplinary research. In: Keeran, P., et al., editors. Research Within the Disciplines: Foundations for Reference and Library Instruction; Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, p.241-254.

Gerhard, K.H. 2000. Challenges in electronic collection building in interdisciplinary studies. Collection Management 25(2): 51-65.

Holland, G.A. 2008. Information science: An interdisciplinary effort? Journal of Documentation 64(1): 7-23.

Kushkowski, J.D., Gerhard, K.H., and Dobson, C. 1998. A method for building core journal lists in interdisciplinary subject areas. Journal of Documentation 54(4): 477-488.

Lee, H. -L. 1995 Interdisciplinarity, women's studies and collection development. In: Moseley, E.S., editor. Women, Information, and the Future: Collecting and Sharing Resources Worldwide; Fort Atkinson, Wis.: Highsmith Press.

Rafols, I. and Meyer, M. 2007. How cross-disciplinary is bionanotechnology? explorations in the specialty of molecular motors. Scientometrics 70(3): 633-650.

Schummer, J. 2004. Multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, and patterns of research collaboration in nanoscience and nanotechnology. Scientometrics 59(3): 425-465.

Sinha, K.C., et al. 2003. Development of transportation engineering research, education, and practice in a changing civil engineering world. In: Russell, Jeffrey S., editor. Perspectives in Civil Engineering: Commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the American Society of Civil Engineers; Reston, Va.: American Society of Civil Engineers, p.193-205.

Spanner, D. 2001. Border crossings: Understanding the cultural and informational dilemmas of interdisciplinary scholars. Journal of Academic Librarianship 27(5): 352-360.

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