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.

David Rundle’s thesis on-line, or What Not to Say in a Viva

Posted in Humanism, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 20 January, 2013

It was, if my memory does not deceive me, a bright and mild December afternoon in 1997 when I entered Oxford’s Examination Schools in white bow-tie and long academic gown, walked up the stairs that rise to the right of the entrance hall, then made my way across the small balcony that looks down upon the same hall, before entering a room where two distinguished scholars awaited me. They were Prof. George Holmes and Prof. A. C. de la Mare — and let us pause to remember those the world has lost, since they have both passed away in the intervening years. At that point, though, they were very much in good health and ready to begin my doctoral viva.

I remember their kindness to me: George opened the discussion by telling me what their recommendation would be, which helped dissipate any nerves I had had (though, equally, it did little to help me focus for the next two minutes — I wanted to be able to go out, cheer, and then return for the serious work). I also remember feeling cheated at the end of the two hours: is that it? can we not stay here for longer, even if the lengthening shadows suggest it is nearly sunset? When you have lived with a subject for five years and more, it is rare that you can find anyone who is as passionate about it as you are, so to have two learned specialists before you who had read every word of the thesis (my then partner had tried, but she fell asleep, leaving my father being the only other person who had suffered it all) and who at least have to appear interested in your work provides an opportunity you do not want to end.

What I replay most in mind, however, is a question they posed that was not related to the intrinsic quality of the work. ‘And what’, George asked, ‘about publication?’ I responded without a pause: ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to publish it as a book’. That, in retrospect, was The Wrong Thing To Say, a career-endangering failure to appreciate the developing dynamic — some would say the duty — to present one’s doctoral research to the world in a monograph. The worst thing is: I stand by what I said.

Appreciate the context: when I began my thesis, the usual expectation was that one would complete it and then move on, leaving the work available for consultation in the relevant university library. Only the exceptional should be put into print and, even then, some of the very best were not, as, indeed, was the case with one of my examiners — Tilly de la Mare’s tour-de-force of a doctorate, on Vespasiano da Bisticci, was never sent to a publisher and, until recently, could only be read by those who visited Senate House in London (it is now, though, available on the web at the excellent British Library ETHOS site).

I should, perhaps, have recognised the changes going on around us and that, by the late 1990s, there was already an increasing expectation that a thesis would see its way into bookshops, that more and more would follow a route once reserved for some of the exceptional, to the extent that being ‘outstanding’ now made one part of the crowd. Certainly, in the last decade, it has become a sine qua non of one’s academic credentials that one should be able to point to one’s doctoral research on the bookshelves — and so the assumption has become that, if a dissertation is not published, there must surely be something really wrong with it.

That dynamic, I would contend, is unsustainable, for two reasons. First, it has spiralled out of control: publishers have noticed the market (niche though it may be) and increased the number of theses they produce, to the extent that, now, university employers take as a sign of quality not whether your thesis is published but where it has been. These shifts have a tendency to be applied retrospectively so that a good thesis published a few years ago with a press now considered to be of dubious quality may be looked on with suspicion. Of course, the true test is not in where it is published — or, indeed, whether it is printed — but in the text itself, though that assumes people would have time to read the words before short-listing or appointing to a job. Bless.

The result of the spiral may well be that the smaller thesis-printing publishers will, over time, find their market dwindles. However, there is another factor that is making the dynamic not just unsustainable but obsolete. That is the increasing desire of institutions to host their alumni’s work on their websites. The number of theses now available  through those sites and through ETHOS means that the research is already available, in the original form of the dissertation. It would take the truly obtuse not to realise that, in this new paradigm, making a thesis available in print, even in revised form, will usually amount to otiose duplication.

When that realisation has sunk in, the consequences could be to the advantage of those who have recently received their doctorate. Rather than working away further on the same subject, they can graze in new pastures, developing their knowledge and their skills further. Not that they should never return to the work which saw their first steps in academe but, rather, that they should be able to revisit it later, recast and rewrite in the mature style they have developed in subsequent years.

None of what I have said, though, is intended to assert that anybody completing their doctorate should have taken the self-denying ordinance I did. I repeat: it was, in the objective terms of the job market, probably the most foolish thing I have ever done (and I have done a fair few). But, in my case, it was also the right thing to do. I had never envisaged my thesis becoming a book and, indeed, it was designed for different ends. It was intellectually ambitious, telling two stories at the same time, as a way of attempting to demonstrate my potential range. It was also overlong: an Oxford doctoral dissertation has to be under 100,000 words (including footnotes), unless you have a dispensation for an appendix of original material. I was granted an extra 50,000 words to provide a collection of manuscript descriptions. That added to the work’s usefulness but also would have made it a much less attractive proposition to a publisher.

Those manuscript descriptions have been on-line for some time now, and I am always grateful to scholars who contact me to say they have found them of value. It is time, I have decided, that they should be accompanied by some prose that is over fifteen years old. Today, I am uploading nearly the entirety of my thesis onto this site, for those who may be by some chance interested. I am doing it because a very few people have asked to see it, and it seems to me best, as I have gone to the trouble of turning old World files into pdfs, that it should be freely available. There is a disadvantage: with the hard-copy in the Bodleian, one signs the register of readers before consulting a thesis and that is not possible on-line. What I ask is if you do look at it, send me word so I know you exist. I am doing this, then, because it seems to me that the virtual world of the web is the appropriate half-light in which a thesis should appear. I am doing this so that it never need be published in print.

To access the chapters of the thesis, go the dedicated page on this website.