Using Google Scholar Alerts as a Research Tool

Historians, and most academics for that matter, can be very parochial. We tend to look in the same sources for information. We tend to look down our own silos. For example, as a military historian it could be easily assumed that I only look at a few journals such as the Journal of Military History, War in History, Journal of Strategic Studies etc. However, it does not have to be this way. We can learn much from colleagues in cognizant fields who publish on areas linked to our research but who we do not often interact with. It just takes a bit of effort to look out of our own silo to garner such information and interpretations. However, the problem is how to access such information? There are so many journals being published these days that it is difficult to keep up with what is being published in each one. A simple solution is to use the internet and in particular Google Scholar Alerts. Google has provided an alerts service for a long time but I had not noticed until recently that a similar service could be set up through their scholar search engine. Maybe I have been slow to pick up on this or it has only recently been added. Nonetheless, the advantage of this service is that you can save keyword searches and you will receive an email digest or recent published works through Google Scholar. This means you do not have to search for recent articles on specific subject but rather receive a simple email alerts when articles containing your keyword emerges. As an example, one of my alerts is, naturally enough, the “Royal Air Force”, and last week the following article came up in my search:

Ian Burney, ‘War on fear: Solly Zuckerman and civilian nerve in the Second World War‘, History of the Human Sciences, Vol. 25, No. 5 (2012)

This article examines the processes through which civilian fear was turned into a practicable investigative object in the inter-war period and the opening stages of the Second World War, and how it was invested with significance at the level of science and of public policy. Its focus is on a single historical actor, Solly Zuckerman, and on his early war work for the Ministry of Home Security-funded Extra Mural Unit based in Oxford’s Department of Anatomy (OEMU). It examines the process by which Zuckerman forged a working relationship with fear in the 1930s, and how he translated this work to questions of home front anxiety in his role as an operational research officer. In doing so it demonstrates the persistent work applied to the problem: by highlighting it as an ongoing research project, and suggesting links between seemingly disparate research objects (e.g. the phenomenon of ‘blast’ exposure as physical and physiological trauma), the article aims to show how civilian ‘nerve’ emerged from within a highly specific analytical and operational matrix which itself had complex foundations.

Now I would not normally have searched for articles related to air power in a journal on the history of sciences. Nonetheless, this is a very interesting article with important implications for furthering our understanding on bombing and the issues of the fragility of civilian morale and how it was examined. It also highlights the interfaces that can emerge between specialists working in seemingly dispirit fields.

Another example of the utility of using the internet a saved searches comes with the following articles on air power from a journal, The International History Review, which I am more familiar with than the History of Human Sciences but do not check as often as I should. Again, keyword searches highlighted these and I may have missed them.

Jonathan Haslam, ‘Giulio Douhet and the Politics of Airpower’, The International History Review, Vol. 34, No. 4 (2012)

The Italian, Giulio Douhet, was the foremost pioneer thinker on air warfare. His distinctive contribution was twofold: he insisted that to win a war in the industrial age, one has to have command of the air: not superiority but total control. Second, that in order to obtain this at a time of international tension, a state has to pre-empt by all-out attack from the air against civilian as well as military targets. ‘Command of the air’, although popular with ‘blue-suiters’ the world over, inevitably antagonised the other branches of the armed forces who have seen air power as auxiliary and nothing more. Massive pre-emption has outraged those who believe war can somehow be won the easy way with minimal casualties but who end up conducting long campaigns in which suffering is the greater – but which are extensive rather than intensive (the First World War). Like most innovative and purist thinkers who have aroused controversy, Douhet from the outset suffered ostracism, abuse, and misinterpretation. Yet while his first precept – command of the air – has been demonstrated to be true, his second precept – pre-emption – has never been tried on any major scale, except against Iraq. Thankfully the US Air Force was never allowed to do so during the cold war. The main misinterpretation, however, comes from taking a selective reading of his work to justify or condemn the mass Allied bombing of Germany in the Second World War that took place over four years or the bombing of North Vietnam over two years, of which he would never have approved. This in part stems from the fact that his work has been available in English, but not entirely so. The explanation also lies elsewhere: in the politics of airpower past and present.

Douglas Ford, ‘Informing Airmen? The US Army Air Forces’ Intelligence on Japanese Fighter Tactics in The Pacific Theatre, 1941–5′, The International History Review, Vol. 34, No. 4 (2012)

This article traces the development of US air intelligence on the tactics and weapons of Japan’s fighter forces during the Pacific War. During the opening stages of the conflict, the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) struggled to set up an intelligence network in the Pacific theater because they were unprepared to wage a large scale conflict against the Japanese. Prior to December 1941, most American air commanders expected Japan to refrain from initiating hostilities with the western powers, and were thus caught unawares when faced with the onslaught of the Japanese air services. The setbacks which US forces suffered in the western Pacific regions during the opening stages of the conflict persuaded air commanders to create a more efficient apparatus that was designed to make good use of the information which aircrews gathered in their encounters with enemy forces. By the end of 1942, observations of the Japanese air forces’ performance in combat enabled the Americans to acquire a rudimentary knowledge of the tactical procedures which pilots needed to follow in order to neutralize their opponent. After 1943, the tide of the air war turned decisively in favor of the Allies, owing to the fact that Japan’s strengths were stretched to the limit, and its industries could not replace the planes and equipment which the armed forces had lost during the battle of Midway and the Solomons campaign.As the conflict progressed, US aviators noticed how the Japanese had suffered losses to the point where they could no longer defend the skies above their occupied territories, as evidenced by the fact that enemy interceptors were appearing in ever-decreasing numbers. The development motivated airmen to seek ways to destroy the remnants of Japan’s air forces as quickly as possible and thereby hasten the tempo of the campaign in the Pacific theater. However, the USAAF remained mindful of the difficulties they faced in fighting the Japanese. This was mainly because the intelligence secured via encounters with enemy forces continued to suggest that they still possessed a good number of serviceable planes, along with trained pilots who were able to cause significant disruption for US air missions. The evidence was taken as a clear indication that the Americans needed to deploy sufficient aircraft strengths and simultaneously develop the tactical methods needed to protect friendly forces against unnecessary casualties.

However, these latter two articles actually highlight a problem with using such tools for research. That is the issue of access. While my alert had made me aware of these two pieces, the University of Birmingham does not actually have access to The International History Review, which is available through the Taylor and Francis online access platform. This is strange considering this is a leading journal and Birmingham is a leading department here in the UK. Admittedly the issue does not lie with the department itself but with the packages that university’s library services chooses to subscribe to. It is clear that Birmingham, for whatever reason, does not subscribe to the relevant package from Taylor and Francis but does subscribe to the one from SAGE who publish the journal History of Human Sciences. This places scholars in a difficult position concerning access and brings up the question of open access that is currently being debated here in the UK in the aftermath of the Finch Report on the question. This is not the place to debate the rights and wrongs of the system (this has been done in other places such as here, here and here) but it is an issue that needs to be dealt with in an effective manner so that scholars can read recent research in their fields. Nonetheless, as an active scholar with a limited budget, I am a PhD student after all, I have to use contacts to gain access to some relevant pieces. The latter two pieces were provided to me by a colleague at the University of Aberystwyth. Despite this concern Google Scholar Alerts is very useful and should be readily used in order to keep up with recent research as it not only links to articles but recent thesis too.

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3 responses to “Using Google Scholar Alerts as a Research Tool

  1. “However, these latter two articles actually highlight a problem with using such tools for research. That is the issue of access. While my alert had made me aware of these two pieces, the University of Birmingham does not actually have access to The International History Review, which is available through the Taylor and Francis online access platform. This is strange considering this is a leading journal and Birmingham is a leading department here in the UK. Admittedly the issue does not lie with the department itself but with the packages that university’s library services chooses to subscribe to.”

    Sounds like *somebody* just became a supportter of the Finch Report and OA.

  2. Jon,

    I support Open Access but don’t agree with all aspects of the Finch Report. Especially the so-called Gold Standard which is causing much consternation with regards to academic freedom. These are problems that need to be overcome because as an academic I should be able to choose where I publish rather than being told to be publish in journal X as it contributes to REF etc.

  3. But … you will be able to choose where you publish. Your incentives will change, but not your freedoms.

    The only consternation seems to be in the Humanities. By and large, the Sciences seem happy.

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