SOS: Help with Digital Humanities Project Needed

"Weltmeisterschaft 2014" by Jürgen Lousberg (CC BY-ND 2.0)

“Weltmeisterschaft 2014” by Jürgen Lousberg (CC BY-ND 2.0)

The World Cup is over, Germany gets the fourth star, and I get back to work.

My investigation into the extent to which cerebral plasticity researchers and brain sex/gender difference researchers talked to each other over the course of the 20th century is a bit challenging. I’ve been reading and thinking and emailing people and writing and thinking and reading and attending a Digital Humanities (DH) conference—and suddenly I realized that what I’m doing here is totally a DH project. More importantly, it’s one I need help with.

Request for student support for a Digital Humanities project at Penn

I am a Ph.D. student at Penn’s Department of History and Sociology of Science, and currently involved in a project on 20th-century neuroscience, with which I need help on a digital subproject. I am looking for students who are familiar with web scraping / text mining / data visualization software, and are willing to collaborate with me during the throughout the upcoming fall term and/or the second half of the summer. I am not looking for an unpaid assistant to be exploited by me, but offering an open win-win collaboration (at least I hope so): I won’t be able to pay money, but I would be more than happy to make this part of a student’s thesis, and this project will result in the publication of a co-authored scholarly paper.

I am working with three types of sources: a Penn neuropsychiatrist’s personal papers (can do this on my own), historical works on the development of the neurosciences in the 20th century (don’t need help here either), and several thousands of articles from the last six decades of neuroscientific research (accessible through online databases such as PubMed). For this last source type, I need help in feeding these articles or their metadata into a computer program and in mining them without reading them.

These articles will belong to two different subfields within the neurosciences: sex difference research in the brain and brain plasticity research. The goal of mining these articles is to find out to what extent, if at all, the two subfields communicated with each other since the 1960s. This (non-)overlap could be presented simply in the form of publication networks, with graphs to be filtered by publication key words, year, and authors, but I could also imagine adding a spatial dimension representing research locations, or conference venues where the respective researchers did (or did not) meet and engage with each other. Possible tools include Neatline and Omeka, but I am very open to more sophisticated, i.e., custom, methods. It entirely depends on the interest and resources of the person(s) who would be interested in pursuing this project together.

The schedule is very flexible until November, when I have to present preliminary results at a History of Science conference.

Here’s why I need help: There is neither an agreed-upon history of brain plasticity research so far, nor a history of brain sex/gender difference in the neurosciences. Thus, I don’t have a historical background against which I could map what I find in neuroscientists’ personal papers and memories. (And, for that matter, we still haven’t been able to excavate the papers from the University Records Center.)

Fabulous work has been done by feminist researchers in the last few decades; I draw heavily on work of scholars affiliated with the NeuroGenderings network in particular. But, alas, even though many of these intriguing works have historical dimensions—Anne Fausto-Sterling’s and Rebecca Jordan-Young’s, for instance—, there’s no broader history available that would allow me to situate the neuroscientific research I am looking at in a longer history of the subfields of brain science. In order to answer the questions I proposed earlier in a productive way, I would have to know more about funding policies at the time the research was carried out, and I’d need a thorough history of the political, feminist, and neuroscientific interaction over the course of the second half of the 20th century. Without that at hand, I cannot convincingly contextualize individual sex/gender difference research activities and potential non-communication with plasticity researchers and find their place and roots in a broader neuroscientific history.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I cannot write the history of plasticity research (Beatrix Rubin Lucht is working on one!), and I won’t have time to write an encompassing qualitative history of brain sex/gender research either. But what I could do, if somebody helped me with the digital part, is interpret and contextualize the potential divide between publication and research networks for sex/gender difference research on the one hand, and plasticity research on the other hand. Maybe I’ll be very, very surprised and won’t find a gap at all. That would be fascinating.

In this digital project, I wouldn’t confine myself to the analysis of paper content, but would use metadata to visualize publication networks, and maybe even add a geographical dimension: where did researcher work, meet, and publish; how close where networks connected to each other—brain organization research, clinical sex/gender difference research, cognitive sex/gender difference research, cerebral plasticity research. With a little (or a lot) more work, conference proceedings could be used to add another level of interaction: maybe the plasticity and sex/gender difference researchers were in neighboring rooms every year, but they still didn’t talk to each other.

—And maybe the different subfields did talk to each other, but the funding organizations didn’t accept their proposals. This is information that wouldn’t be found in publication metadata, which is why it’s so important to contextualize the findings with substantial historical literature and add the data found in the archival sources: minutes, grant proposals, interviews, lab books, correspondence, etc.

So: Can you help me? Do you know of anybody who could?

Cite this blog post
Tabea Cornel (2014, July 14). SOS: Help with Digital Humanities Project Needed. The Semipermeable Membrane. Retrieved June 19, 2024, from

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