I recently realised that I might be missing a trick by not using the Google Scholar alerts system. Someone on #phdchat mentioned that they found setting up well-targeted and sensible alerts kept them informed of research relevant to their interests, and I wondered whether they might be on to something. My current way of keeping on top of things after the initial trawl through the literature is a combination of a half-hearted glance through the titles of articles in new journals and browsing reviews that appear on BMCR, and this is perhaps not the most efficient way of keeping up to date.
So, on 22nd August I set up five Google Scholar alerts. Setting up an alert was very easy, although the system did decide (perhaps unsurprisingly) to send them to my not-particularly-active Gmail address by default. I set up five alerts to see how useful they would be. I initially thought about setting up one for Seneca, but apparently there is a very prolific scientist publishing in biochemistry of that name, and all the search results came back with his publications. So I set up a search alert for Seneca Stoic and Seneca Latin, to see how that did on keeping me up to date on relevant scholarship. (I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my own thesis came up in the search for Seneca Stoic – at least I’m out there!) I also put in a search for Polybius – risking false positives dealing with the work of the historian Polybius, but I wanted to see whether that risk was worth taking in order to get anything that might mention Seneca’s ad Polybium. Finally, I set up searches for Petronius and Priapea, one for an old project and one for a project-in-the-works, to see what (if anything) turned up.
On the first day, things didn’t look too impressive, until I got to the search for “Seneca Stoic” – which obligingly pointed me towards a PDF version of the Cambridge Companion to Greek Political Thought, which happens to contain an interesting article on the cosmopolis in Cicero. I have to admit I’m a bit concerned about the legality of having that up on line, but there it was, and it was an article I’d already had on my reading list to check out. (The search for Seneca Latin, by the way, did turn up a fair bit on the Seneca Indians, and Polybius was, as predicted, concerned with the historian, not my chap. Poor old Priapea didn’t have anything to share.) But I’ve carried on patiently watching the alerts dribble into my inbox. And after two months of trial – well, I have to say that I’m not viewing this as a world-shattering change to how I do my research.
The Priapea search rarely, if ever, returns search results, and when it does, they tend to be rather less than academically sound webpages. The Polybius searches have continued to be interested in the historian. The Seneca searches, whilst not returning too much biochemistry, do seem to pick up a lot of post-classical stuff – today’s announcement, for instance, sends me to a chapter on Thomas Jefferson and the ancient world, which I’m sure would be thrilling if it were relevant to my research interests. Sadly, it’s not. It’s also sent me to a recent chapter by Mary Beard on risk and the humanities, which isn’t relevant but is still quite interesting – and this, I think, is the reason I’m going to stick with having the Google Scholar alerts coming in, especially as they’re directed to an e-mail account which doesn’t get much traffic. They do, from time to time, point me in the direction of things that look interesting even if they’re not obviously relevant, and I can put off looking over them until I’m ready. And so long as I feel I’m in control of them, rather than them being in control of me, then it doesn’t hurt to have an extra tool in the research arsenal.