bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

How to Research in the Online-Only World, part VI

Posted in Academic Practices by bonaelitterae on 15 June, 2020

There has been a brief hiatus in posting instalments to this short series of tips. That is because the past week has been a busy one for Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies. It ended with the annual MEMSFest, which is a highpoint of the year — it might not, in our present conditions, have had the buzz of like-minded people gathered in the room, but it is still a privilege to hear young scholars revealing to us what will be The Next Big Thing in their field. What has made the past few days is that last week began with the launch of MEMSLib, a ‘lockdown library’ led by a group from our student community (MA, PhD and post-doc), and designed to support fellow researchers during the Covid-19 pandemic. The team has done a particularly impressive job and it is gratifying to see how well MEMSLib has been received by the international online world. The site comprises both an extensive set of pages listing online resources and a forum where scholars can post specific requests for support — but we will return to that in the last of these tips. This series, in fact, was inspired by our students’ work and act as a sort of supplement.

The tip for today is based on this principle: when you find a resource, do not be satisfied: do not see that as a the end of your journey but as an invitation to travel further. To put this in more concrete terms: if you come across a piece of scholarship that you find very useful, do not stop there — think about who wrote it and what else they might have produced which could be relevant to you. Tip VI then is: track the author.

That sounds simple: type in their name into Google and all will be revealed – that is not always so, and they are further ways to improve your chances of finding the information you want so here are some techniques you may find useful.

A name in itself may not be enough to find the specific person you want. A person’s name can change for personal reasons, be that marriage, divorce or gender reassignment, for instance. Alternatively (or additionally), it may be fairly common — there is no shortage of supply of Smiths among scholars — or there may be more than one academic of that name. You may know an Oxford-based medievalist born David Carpenter who, to avoid continuing confusion with the other, London-based, David Carpenter, has added a middle initial of ‘X’ (and, no, it does not stand for Xavier). Neither man of that name is, I see, the first hit on Google. That aside, a recent initiative to disintangle authors’ identities is ORCID, which turns each individual researcher is turned from a name to a long number. For instance, you can call me 0000-0002-7866-5681. It is an early stage and the entries on that site certainly do not provide a full listing of publications but they are becoming standard and help disentangle identities. While that continues to develop, the basic advice is to use all co-ordinates available in the piece you reading: affiliation at the time of writing is often given, and you can also add the topic of the work to your search to help focus the results.

If you are lucky — and if the person you are searching is lucky — they will have an institutional affiliation with a webpage of their own. Some academics are lackadaisical about updating their list of publications but, in the UK at least, there is an incentive to do so. When the Research Excellence Framework (REF) gains its historian, they will dilate on its opacity, its failed metrics and its obscene misdirection of resources but, they might add, at least it encouraged scholars to list what they have published. More than that, the present rules of the REF require that a copy of each article which is to be submitted (it does not apply to books) is made available in some format on an institutional repository. To give an example: say you are interested in fourteenth-century Anglo-papal relations and have just read an impressive piece by Barbara Bombi (I particularly recommend her article in Journal of Ecclesiastical History from 2017). You look her up and, first, you find her that she has a Wikipedia page — that puts her in a minority among academics, and will be a source of envy for her colleagues, but the entry does not give much detail about what she has written. For that, go to the next hit which is the University of Kent site and see on her webpage a list of publications. What you will also see is that after most entries there is a link stating ‘View in KAR’, which is the acronym for the Kent Academic Repository. Every British institution submitting to the REF has to have one and you could entertain yourself on a wet afternoon discovering how inventive the creators of acronyms have been with them around the four nations. The work uploaded to the repository is often not going to look identical with the printed version but it will be the ‘pre-print’ text and so should give you the full wording, minus page numbers.

Barbara Bombi

We have to remember, though, that only some learned scholars have the comfort of a permanent university post (and for those in such a position, it can often feel less than comfortable). For the wider intellectual community which will include many early career scholars and those who are retired as well as those who take a role in administration or in an archive (for instance), institutional affiliation will not provide up-to-date information. For them it is essential to look elsewhere, and for those in post it is also strongly advisable. Here are some suggestions of where to go:

  • online repositories – these are separate from institutional ones in that they are not confined to one university and that they are commercial ventures. There are three main ones: Academia.edu, ResearchGate and Google Scholar. The first of these was once beloved of humanities scholars but the relationship has, for many, turned stale as the site becomes more commercial. The second is more used by scientists but is still worth checking. The last is indeed part of GoogleEmpire but its results do not immediately appear on a simple Google search; it needs to be treated as a separate search.
  • doctoral dissertations – for younger scholars, in particular, it can be useful to check whether their thesis is available. In Britain, the main portal is the British Library’s EThOS; in the States, there is the EBSCO database. I am not aware of a similar aggregating site for any country on mainland Europe. A word of warning about using dissertations: do remember that, even when they are posted online, they are unpublished work. I have expressed disquiet in the past about the pressure on those just graduated to turn their dissertation into a published work but do be aware that might be happening (or have happened). Please respect the nature of the thesis and, if possible, seek permission before citing or quoting it extensively.
  • personal blogsites – many scholars, particularly those who are not in a permanent post, disseminate their research through a personal website, often (like this one) built in WordPress. These vary greatly in what they provide but often include a CV or (as here) a listing of publications.
  • social media – there is a corner of the Twitterverse which is inhabited by medievalists (#medievaltwitter) and early modernists. Of course, twitterfeeds often mix the personal, the political and the scholarly and you cannot mute the elements you do not want to see, but it is useful to have an account, as news of publications, projects and conferences often appear there. Something similar might be the case for Facebook (which I loathe) and Instagram (which I really should join). All these also give you some sense of how one individual is connected to other researchers and this brings me to a final point.

No researcher is a hermit, however much of an introvert or a sociopath your lecturer might seem to you. They necessarily have to engage with other scholars. Sometimes that can be confrontational (back to the bitter review) but much more often it will be constructive: they collaborate, they interact, they advise, they nurture. When you have taken one piece, looked up the author, know their complete oeuvre… do not be satisfied; go further. Their intellectual odyssey was not a solitary journey. They have colleagues, mentors and protégés. The next step is to find out about them. Work out from the person whose career you can plot and think about the intellectual network in which they sit. In short, the searching does not end.

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  1. […] The previous tip, like the others so far in this series, was about how to make your searching as successful as possible. That, though, is not enough. The fuller your set of results and so the longer the bibliography, the more the challenge of ensuring you can refer back to specific items in what you have found. You need to be able with ease to gather together all relevant material on a particular element of your research. This means that Tip VII is: at an early stage in your research, work out how you are going to store your results. […]


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