The iterative research process

April 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

Many days my time is filled with data. Data cleaning, data collecting, data analyzing, butting my head against formatting data so I can math it correctly. Those are fun days, but only a small part of the story of my research. I generally begin my research not with data but with a question, insight, or concern that comes out of another project I’ve been working on, but don’t have time or space to address within the confines of that project. For example, a few years ago I was working on an agent-based model / computer simulation that was supposed to emulate the process of letter writing in Early Modern Europe. While writing it, I came to the realization that I had absolutely no idea how to epistemologically ground the research; how can we use simulations as a way of knowing when studying history? The question was shelved for some time, but I recently came back to it due to it coming up again for various reasons. This post is about how I go about the reading stage of my research; specifically, finding relevant articles to read.

My search begins one of two places; Google Scholar, or my Zotero Library. Today I begin at my Zotero library, because I know I’ve read related research before, although pertaining to experimental science rather than history. A quick full text search through Zotero reveals the dozen or so pertinent articles for my research. Because I’m old and hate trees, I print them out and browse through them with a pen for underlining. One that stands out for introductory material is an article called “Why Model?” by Joshua Epstein, so I go and I look through the articles it references to see if anything stands out that I can use – unfortunately, there is not. The next step is to search for the article in Google Scholar – easily found – and click on the ‘Cited by 162’ link right underneath it which shows me what articles cite it.

I’m particularly interested in articles pertaining to history, so now that I have a list of the 162 articles that cite Epstein’s ‘Why Model?’, I type “history” in the search bar, check the box that says “Search within citing articles” and get this list of results. The first result, “Explanation in Agent-Based Modelling: Functions, Causality or Mechanisms?” is very promising; it is both useful itself as an article (I print it out and read it), but it also quotes Axtell et al. 2002 “To “explain” an observed spatio-temporal history is to specify agents that generate or grow this history. By this criterion, our strictly environmental account of the evolution of this society during this period goes a long way towards explaining this history.” – obviously a useful link, to an article I knew about but had never gotten around to reading.

The iteration begins again. In new tabs, I use google scholar to show me the articles that cite the Explanation paper, as well as articles that cite the original Axtell paper. A few choice resources, including a 300 page thesis, pop up in my search, and within no time I have about 30 articles to skim. The whole process takes me about 20 minutes, and as I filter out the relevant results and iterate down to more citation or reference searches, I either close tabs of unrelated articles, or add the relevant ones to Zotero and print them out to read later. I winnow my selection down to about 15 papers, which is good enough for today, and I’ll probably start the process over again tomorrow, after I’ve finished reading these articles.

When I add relevant articles to Zotero, I actually put each article in two folders: one folder is nested and categorized by subject, so I can find it later if I’m looking for it with regards to a new project, and the other folder I put the reference in is a folder specific to this particular project, so I can very quickly and easily select all of the references and export them into a complete bibliography for my research. I already have about 200 resources in my Zotero folder for this project, called “Simulating history,” and by the time I finish writing it up, I suspect I’ll have 250-300 articles I’ve used in the process of writing.

The process is undeniably time-consuming. My writing projects take well over a year, and I try to be completely exhaustive in my literature reviews – which is, as it sounds, exhausting. The Scottbot Irregular, my blog, is something I use when I want to write shorter things that I’m okay with not being done or perfect. I think I need to streamline this process further and learn to be okay reading less and being less exhaustive overall, but I have trouble making claims in published papers if I can’t point to all associated literature and say that it either backs me up, or that it’s wrong and this is why. This process usually takes me into biology, physics, lit-crit, and everything else, which is super fun but probably not the most productive thing I could be doing with my time.

So this is the way I find resources to read. While there are a few journals I read regularly, notice that at no point when I’m preparing to write a paper do I look at the journal an article is in and decide to include it based on the journal, nor do I do my research by looking in relevant journals. The journal is generally invisible to me; I don’t pay attention to it at all.

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