Scholars rely on digital tools to search for publications relevant to their areas of research and teaching. Yet most search tools are based on principles of keyword or concept matching that rank results by popularity and similarity. Such tools can reflect biases and inequalities, reproducing patterns of exclusion and marginalization. What might search look like if it instead privileged values of epistemological pluralism and critique?

Relata (https://relata.mit.edu) is an experimental search tool for humanistic scholarship. It seeks to map conversations in sociocultural anthropology by identifying analytical moves or relations—namely, absence, critique, extension, incorporation, reanalysis, and refinement—among scholarly works. In its pilot version, the search interface displays results based on relations explicitly identified by scholars. The initial database of 214 works was populated via an open survey distributed in early 2019 to members of the Society for Cultural Anthropology. Users of Relata, at any career stage or institutional location, are invited to expand the database by adding new works and identifying new relations among works.

How to Use Relata

  • To look up a published work, type the title or author into the search box in the top-right corner of the interface. Note that your chosen work may not yet exist in the Relata database or have any relations identified, since users are just beginning to add works and relations.
  • Along the left side of the interface, a list of citations related to the selected work is displayed. To the right, there is a network map of scholarly relations, both to and from the selected work. Each relation is characterized as one of six types. To read the relation, follow the direction of the arrow: looking at the relations around Marisol de la Cadena’s 2010 article “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes,” for example, you will see that “Fabricant 2013 is a reanalysis of de la Cadena 2010” and that “de la Cadena 2010 is a refinement of Hale 2004,” etc.
  • You can select a work by clicking on its search result or its network node.
  • To see the definitions of available types, click “Glossary” in the toolbar at the top.
  • To add works and relations to the database, you must sign in by following the link in the toolbar at the top. You can sign in with a Zotero, GitHub, or Google account. Relata requests minimal permissions and uses your username only for authentication. Once signed in, an “Add Relation” button will appear under the selected work.
  • At present, Relata only supports works indexed by Crossref.

In subsequent stages of the project, we aim to develop more sophisticated algorithms that complement these human-assigned relations with automatically suggested machine-generated ones. By training a machine learning model with the scholar-generated metadata, we hope to infer possible relations among works (while making those inferences available for critique and ongoing reconfiguration).

The Relata project is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in cooperation with the Society for Cultural Anthropology. It builds on research and design by Rodrigo Ochigame, a doctoral candidate in the Program in History; Anthropology; and Science, Technology and Society at MIT. The Relata team has also included Marcel LaFlamme and Heather Paxson; MIT students Lilia Poteat, Elena Sobrino, and Jamie Wong; MIT librarians Ece Turnator and Georgiana McReynolds; and software developer Christopher Setzer.

The Relata project is not-for-profit, based fully on free and open-source software, and all of the metadata it produces is dedicated to the public domain.

Unrestricted funding for the project’s pilot phase was awarded in August 2018 by the MIT Quest for Intelligence, in conjunction with the MIT-SenseTime Alliance. In October 2019, SenseTime, an AI startup, was one of eight Chinese tech companies added to the U.S. government’s Entity List for their purported role “in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs and other members of Muslim minority groups.” SenseTime had provided software used in the Chinese government’s national surveillance system. MIT immediately announced it would “review” its relationship with SenseTime. As of early 2021, no action has been taken to suspend that relationship.