Methodology · Publication · Research

Getting the New Year started

This year marks the 50th anniversary of my first submission of an article for publication in an academic journal, prepared shortly after I started working at the first of the two museums in Stockholm where I was to spend the rest of my career. Although I hadn’t anticipated carrying museum-based research into my retirement, with the exception of shifting its focus to the history and technology of looped fabric production, that’s exactly what this blog represents. Without calling particular attention to it, almost every post has been framed as an essay that might serve as a preliminary study for a future journal article.

My good friend Dora Ohrenstein, who has been following this undertaking since the earliest “maybe a blog would be a good idea” phase, recently suggested that describing the research process itself, and not simply reporting its outcome, would be of interest to many readers. I’ll be taking that advice but am uncertain about how best to integrate commentary about the added form of geekery into the one I’ve been plying here all along. For openers, here is a retrospective introduction to it from the perspective of a researcher who in real time tracked the effects of the introduction of digital technologies on both the research and publication processes.

A central aspect of historically oriented research prior to the availability of extensive online repositories of scanned facsimiles of older documents — together with digitized catalogs of museum, library, and archive holdings — was the effort that went into discovering, locating, and accessing source material. This could also entail significant expense, which even if underwritten institutionally, required honing a reliable sense of impending relevance before setting the wheels in motion. Skill in the critical evaluation and contextualization of available sources remains fundamental to research and is applied to the examination of those sources however easy their virtual acquisition may since have become. Sifting through material that is only available physically also remains as arduous as ever.

Museums, libraries, and archives are usually as generous and helpful as could possibly be when asked to provide researchers with access to material for detailed examination. Photography is often permitted both in reading rooms and museum study facilities, but almost invariably with the proviso that the photos are only to be used as a personal research support. If this results in formal publication, the institution will provide photographs specifically for that purpose. It is commonly stipulated further that photographs taken by guest researchers are under no circumstances to be posted on social media. (The concern here is the widespread third-party collation of images found on the Internet into publicly accessible albums that disregard the rights of the owner of the original material and don’t invariably even indicate their sources.)

A researcher with a stockpile of information acquired under such restrictions is free to reflect the insight gained from it in such things as blog posts. However, it may be apparent when doing so that details of potential interest to the reader are being withheld, risking being seen as deliberate coyness. There is a corresponding intricacy when submitting an article for publication, based on preliminary results noted in one or more blog posts. All academic venues require an assurance that the research reported in a submission has neither appeared previously nor is under editorial consideration elsewhere. Reuse and parallel publication are subject to negotiation but blogs are in something of a twilight zone. Some editors see them as constituting prior publication and others do not.

My own way of dealing with this is to take any blog posts offline that contain material I’m working into an article at the outset of that process. I replace the posts with a brief statement about why they have been removed, with a promise of a link to the impending publication and the reposting of any material not included in it. If there is any reason to suspect that this action might be seen as insufficient by the editor to whom the submission is made, I mention it explicitly in the ensuing dialog and there has been no negative reaction so far.

The decision about whether a post needs to be disclosed is eased by the viewing statistics provided on a running basis by the host platform for this blog. These show which posts have fallen off the radar screen and which remain on it despite having been presented much earlier. Search engines offer additional periodic reports both about the frequency with which individual posts appear in search results and when users click on the links to them.

The delivered wisdom of the blogosphere encourages the reuse of material from older posts — if not verbatim reposting — when there is any indication of renewed interest in a particular topic that had otherwise appeared to be dormant. Last month’s collated viewing statistics were topped by a two-year-old essay titled Crochet as Warp Knitting. Coincidentally, this was the topic I was in the midst of revisiting both when the monthly reports arrived and the suggestion was made about spending some time discussing what research entails. I’ll revisit the revisiting in another post.

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