COST Exploratory Workshop

Integrating the Stake of Rare Disciplines at the European Level
September 9, 2015

“Disciplines”, Kevin Boyack says, “are adequately described by inertia” and he continues, “the formation of a new discipline is not a common event. Those new disciplines that do form have a good chance to become emergent (bioinformatics and nanoscience are recent examples), but the smaller disciplines that have been around a long time are likely to stay small.” (personal communication, 2015). Having said this, science is also dynamic, and the science system has been compared to a living ecosystem, in which disciplines and fields emerge, grow and disappear. Of course it all depends on the time scale and the level of granularity on which these changes are studied. When Copernicus studied during the Renaissance, he had the choice between seven liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Today the Frascati Manual, a UNESCO classification of science used by OECD, still encompasses six main disciplines (Natural Sciences, Engineering, Medical Sciences, Agriculture, Social Sciences, Humanities and Fine Arts) but with many more sub-disciplines, each of considerable size. Moreover, there is by no means a common agreement on how to define a discipline, a field, or a specialty (see Sugimoto & Weingart 2015).


The time of increasing specialization and corresponding collaboration puts a strain on profiling higher education. For many universities the question emerges if a Humboldtian science or university with a full portfolio of all disciplines is actually viable. How should we treat disciplines with few experts and small student numbers? As endangered species in need of specific preservation or as outdated and best to be replaced by new fields for the sake of progress in science?

The interesting discussion at the workshop revealed that the situation is by no means simple. The workshop brought together senior scholars and research managers from Germany, France, The Netherlands, Hungary, Poland and other European countries. A coordination of higher education at the European level seems to be wishful, but there are also legitimate national interests. To give an example, to study Croatian language and culture might seem to be best done at a Croatian university. However, Hungary, with a Croatian minority, might have very good reasons to keep this discipline in its education portfolio. Some fields of archeology, as small and exotic as they might appear, have an immediate relation to current global developments, as the emotional testimony of Tamás Dezső made clear. He said, “if someone asked me what the functions of ‘rare disciplines’ are, I would readily answer that without the help of an academic discipline, such as Assyriology or archaeology, one would not be able to provide adequate answers and adequate solutions for the broad-scale destruction of archaeological sites and the cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq.”
Giving up on ancient languages as Ancient Greek and Latin actually cuts us off from being able to re-appropriate and re-assess knowledge in those texts that are at the beginning of the European civilization as Howard Hotson (COST Action Reassembling the Republic of Letters 1500-1800) pointed out.
There is no easy solution to this problem. But a first step would be to actually map the various definitions, and the actual situation in various European countries. The task put on the table was to create an observatory for ‘small disciplines’.

Consequently, in the second half of the meeting a lot of the discussion in the brainstorm groups was devoted to questions of what to map, how to map, and how to exchange the observations. If it comes to the methods of collecting empirical evidence, qualitative and quantitative methods can best be combined. A small research unit in Germany (Arbeitsstelle Kleine Fächer) at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz collects pointers to and information about ‘small fields’ from the universities directly, feeding this information into a database. Definitions used by this group could, in principle, be turned into queries in larger databases on research information for those countries that have them on a national level, such as NARCIS for the Netherlands. Global maps of science – as they are produced, based on journal literature – can be used to trace the number of journals in a field – thus mapping small fields. They could be equally used to locate those researchers who are current representatives of a small fields. However, none of those triangulations will be available with the push of a button. Neither qualitative nor quantitative approaches -be it on the basis of research information, research output or information on education- will be all encompassing, hence collaboration and coordination is to be desired.

To contribute to this question from our Knowescape network is a challenge. We will discuss in Mons if one of the upcoming events – January Mainz e.g. – could be used to give room to discuss this question. On the level of fundamental research about the past and present dynamics of science there is a natural link with the above-mentioned COST Action IS1310.
Due to its anchorage in the national science systems, and its devotion to innovative research, COST is a natural platform to enable meetings and discussions on this topic. To be continued….

Cassidy R. Sugimoto, & Scott Weingart (2015) “The kaleidoscope of disciplinarity”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 71 Iss: 4, pp.775 – 794,, preprint:

I would like to thank Kevin Boyack for communication and data exchange prior to the event. Methodologically, the question of how to define a discipline has such been discussed at the workshops on topic delineation in Berlin and Amsterdam.