Olivia Judson on the Research Process

June 30, 2010

I’ve very much enjoyed Olivia Judson’s column – technically, it’s a blog – in the New York Times.  She’s written about various aspects of biology, and she always has footnotes and references to scholarly sources!  Today she writes that she’s taking a hiatus, and uses her last column to discuss the way she’s gone about writing it.  It’s rare to see discussion of the research process, from idea-generation to preliminary searching to citation chaining to creating a finished piece, in a venue as widely-read as the Times.  I thought this was a nice window for non-scholars into the process – hope some undergrads are reading this column (I would definitely be assigning it if I were teaching Biology)!

But having an idea is one thing; developing it is another. Some ideas look great from the bathtub, but turn out to be as flimsy as soap bubbles — they pop when you touch them. Others are so huge they can’t easily be treated in 1,500 words or less, or would take two or three months to prepare. Still others — luckily — are just right. But I don’t usually find out which is which until I begin to investigate them.

This is the part I like most. I go to a science database called the ISI Web of Knowledge (this is not an open database, alas; my access is through Imperial College), and I start fishing: I type in key terms — fossil and color; brain and exercise; praying mantis and cannibal — and see what comes up. This gives me a sense of how much is known, and how complex the subject is. And then I begin to read. And read. And follow threads of information — who has referred to this paper? What is the original source of that fact?

Having done this, I let the information percolate. Often it takes me several runs at a subject to create something coherent.

(No, this is not directly relevant to Classics!)

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