Using Research Rabbit for Worldbuilding Research

Research Rabbit is software aimed at academics, to help them discover papers relevant to their research. Anyone who’s read anything I’ve ever written knows that research is a big part of my writing habit, though, so I use it too. One of my favorite things about Research Rabbit is how friendly and responsive the development team is, since my use of Research Rabbit is just another example of me using complicated software in ways it’s not intended for.

From what I can tell, Research Rabbit scans the publicly available information about what different papers are about and who cites them and who they’re cited by. This lets the software identify what works are similar to each other and therefore likely to be useful to you if you’re trying to get a comprehensive understanding of scholarship in a particular subfield — which is incredibly valuable if you’re trying to make sure you don’t read one paper, assume it’s true because it was published in a reputable journal, and then miss the six other papers debunking it.

Finding a starting point

Research Rabbit has some basic search functionality, but finding papers based on a search term isn’t really where it shines. It’s not set up for Google-style boolean searches; it assumes you already have at least one paper to work from, preferably more, and are trying to keep up to date with scholarship on a particular topic or make sure you haven’t missed any pieces of an argument chain.

To find a good entry point on a particular topic where I’m coming in cold, like I did for my recent newsletter about glass, I usually start with a reputable website that shares science news. I knew I wanted to know about the earliest examples of glass, so I turned to Archaeology Magazine. I used their site search for glass and skimmed until I find something interesting. I got a hit pretty quick, in the form of a 2016 update about the debate between whether glass was created first in Mesopotamia or Egypt.

2016 is about five years ago, so this research isn’t exactly totally outdated and irrelevant, but the summary I found is also throwing around phrases like “new analysis” and “some researchers say” and “further study is needed.” Immediately, I knew that I couldn’t stop there; I haven’t found some obscure thing all the relevant scholars agree on, I’ve found something where there are very likely to have been updates.

So the first thing I do with this update is try to track it to the actual research that prompted it. Archaeology Magazine articles like this are the equivalent of a tweet saying “hey check this out, something important happened” — they aren’t themselves a primary source. In this case, the article is reporting on a Science News article. The Science News article is a bit meatier, with quotes from archaeologists and some relevant photos of artifacts, but it’s not original research, it’s a newspaper article about research.

Research Rabbit is for scholarly papers, not pop science books or newspaper articles. Even though Tamed by Alice Roberts has a bibliography as long as my leg, I can’t use Research Rabbit to track its citation chain (though it would be cool if I could!).

Happily, a citation to a scholarly source was provided by Science News. Unfortunately, the link is broken, and Research Rabbit doesn’t have any papers by the name provided. Luckily, I was able to Google the author’s name and a few helpful keywords: Shortland glass Egypt

Curating a Collection

I created a new collection in Research Rabbit called “Ancient Glass,” then entered the article I found using its DOI. Then I clicked “find similar,” and then skimmed the abstracts for papers that looked relevant to my interests without being incomprehensible technical. Of the original fifty, I added about four to my collection… and repeated the process until I had about twenty-five articles that looked like they might have something neat in them, at least some of which Research Rabbit reports are available via open access means (there’s a little icon that says “PDF available.”)

Then I exported the .bib file into Zotero. Because I’m super lazy efficient, I usually start with whatever interesting PDFs Zotero is able to download automatically, the open access ones. If I see something that is particularly interesting but Zotero couldn’t get for me automatically, I’ll track it down using JSTOR. If it looks amazing and I can’t find a way to get ahold of it on my own, I might reach out to one of my friends with access to different journals than me, or even email the author, and see if they can’t help me out.

Here’s a video of how I use Research Rabbit + Zotero + Obsidian to organize my research:

Passive Search

I use Research Rabbit as a discovery engine, and you can use it collaboratively, but it’s not a social-driven algorithm the way Refind or Mix.com are. They do however have a neat feature where they’ll email you if there’s a new paper about something likely to interest you. It’s called RabbitRadar, and what I particularly like is that they don’t pad it out with a bunch of stuff that’s not actually a good fit — I’ve had an account for awhile now and I’ve only gotten one RabbitRadar email. It helpfully includes the abstracts of the relevant papers and a link to add it to the relevant collection in ResearchRabbit, but doesn’t have a lot of clutter.

The Result

I personally tend to roll my research over into a newsletter — this one wound up being called Siliceous skeletons & the origin of clear glass windows, and it helped me with these three pieces of microfiction about a fantasy kingdom’s efforts to eradicate a magic-immune beastie.

Eleanor

Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing stories that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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