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J Med Internet Res. 2008 Jun 30;10(2):e19. doi: 10.2196/jmir.971.

Supporting emerging disciplines with e-communities: needs and benefits.

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Center for Dental Informatics, School of Dental Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, 3501 Terrace Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15261, USA.



Science has developed from a solitary pursuit into a team-based collaborative activity and, more recently, into a multidisciplinary research enterprise. The increasingly collaborative character of science, mandated by complex research questions and problems that require many competencies, requires that researchers lower the barriers to the creation of collaborative networks of experts, such as communities of practice (CoPs).


The aim was to assess the information needs of prospective members of a CoP in an emerging field, dental informatics, and to evaluate their expectations of an e-community in order to design a suitable electronic infrastructure.


A Web-based survey instrument was designed and administered to 2768 members of the target audience. Benefit expectations were analyzed for their relationship to (1) the respondents' willingness to participate in the CoP and (2) their involvement in funded research. Two raters coded the respondents' answers regarding expected benefits using a 14-category coding scheme (Kappa = 0.834).


The 256 respondents (11.1% response rate) preferred electronic resources over traditional print material to satisfy their information needs. The most frequently expected benefits from participation in the CoP were general information (85% of respondents), peer networking (31.1%), and identification of potential collaborators and/or research opportunities (23.2%).


The competitive social-information environment in which CoPs are embedded presents both threats to sustainability and opportunities for greater integration and impact. CoP planners seeking to support the development of emerging biomedical science disciplines should blend information resources, social search and filtering, and visibility mechanisms to provide a portfolio of social and information benefits. Assessing benefit expectations and alternatives provides useful information for CoP planners seeking to prioritize community infrastructure development and encourage participation.

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