Historical Research Guide
This document was written for undergraduate students in Harvard’s Department of the History of Science by Brad Bolman, a PhD candidate. It begins with a step-by-step guide on how I went from a conference “Call for Papers” to a specific topic and full presentation. Then it discusses some general research strategies. It covers my use of (Mac), , , and Microsoft Word, the three major tools in my typical workflow. A later version will cover use of DEVONThink.
Selecting a Topic
In 2017, I decided I wanted to attend the JAS-BIO conference at Princeton University. The conference’s general theme is the history of biology, and I knew it was a congenial atmosphere for graduate student presentations. Sounded great!
But what would I present on? Previously I had studied the use of beagle dogs in smoke-inhalation studies, part of a larger dissertation focus on the use of beagle dogs in biology. But I didn’t want to simply repeat that, so I thought I would explore the use of “beagles” in a new scientific field. In general, I often follow a historical approach set out by Hannah Landecker in that involves closely reading scientific papers.
So, I began by searching Google Scholar, my typical first-line search engine, to get a lay of the land (this required the use of a “web search” in Alfred, explained at the bottom).
Surprisingly, a very basic search seemed to produce quite a few articles connecting beagles with periodontal disease. I hadn’t expected teeth! Unless things turn out weirdly, we’ve got a possible paper.
Narrowing Down the Question
Now that we know the basic area, we need to figure out what our “historical question” is. We might be satisfied just figuring out what on earth happened to periodontology in the 20th century. But let’s be more specific: What do we want to know about beagles and periodontitis?
We can make our first search a little narrower:
And the results are pretty impressive!
Clearly, I’ve already clicked on some of these links when putting that paper together. But we notice a few things based on this image:
- There are “12,800” results, which clearly shows us that this is a relatively significant area of study. People are/were using beagles to study periodontitis.
- We see a name “J. Lindhe” coming up on all five of the top results, the first of which has been cited 756 times, according to Google Scholar’s indexing. He is “first author” on four of the publications, so clearly a paper on beagles and periodontitis would need to figure out who J. Lindhe is.
- We notice that the earliest date in the first few results is “1973.” Since we’re trying to figure out the lay of the land here, we need to explore whether beagles were being used to study periodontitis for a long time before that.
(The next image shows all of these elements)
Now, from here we could do a few things. I like to establish vague temporal bounds with Google Scholar before moving much further with tracking down articles. Since we know that 1973 is the earliest major article, we can use that as our far bound in Google Scholar’s “Custom range…” boxes.
Now we’re down to only “143 results”! It’s clear that 1973 was not the beginning of the meeting of beagles and periodontitis, but the vast majority of the research happened after. Let’s try to set a far bound again, this time using “1970,” which appears above (this time not an article by J. Lindhe).
Looking good! Only 65 results now and we’re no longer seeing Lindhe at the top of the results. Instead, we’re seeing someone named “S.R. Saxe.”
Before we turn to figuring out who “S.R. Saxe” is, let’s narrow down our time period a little bit more, seeing if we can find a basic “start” for our analysis. Obviously Google Scholar’s listings won’t tell us exactly when beagles first appeared in periodontitis research, but they will give us a useful starting point.
When we get to a bound of 1963, it becomes pretty clear that we are close to the beginning: only 15 results and some of them appear to be search index errors by Google Scholar (for instance, when a new article appears as a link inside an older article, tricking the algorithm). The earliest “useful” result seems to be radiation studies in 1960 that involved beagle dogs. From my earlier research, I knew that these studies at the University of Utah were one of the starting points for beagles to appear as useful laboratory animals.
Now I know two useful things for my abstract and paper:
- That 1960 probably represents a rough beginning for further research into the question;
- That the use of beagles in periodontitis research has a direct connection to another article of mine on beagles in radiobiology!
Because of these two things, I can feel pretty confident at this point that I have a research topic that I can handle producing a paper about. Now, it’s just about connecting the dots.
A good question to ask ourselves now that we have a fun topic is: What have other scholars written about beagles and teeth? Just beagles? Just teeth? We don’t want to re-tread topics that have already been sufficiently explored and we don’t want to ignore previous, high-quality research.
Going back to Google Scholar, we’ll now search recent articles:
We’re using quotes around “History of Science” because we’re hoping to find articles by authors who describe themselves as historians of science or within publications that tend to publish history of science articles.