Relata and the Future of Scholarly Search

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, ranking results by popularity or similarity. What might it look like to build a search tool that instead privileged values of epistemological pluralism and critique?

Last month, the MIT-SenseTime Alliance awarded a $99,442 grant to a project team led by incoming Cultural Anthropology editor Heather Paxson to prototype such a tool in partnership with the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA), a section of the American Anthropological Association. The working name for the tool is Relata, inspired by feminist scholarship on the construction of meaning through relations. It builds on independent research by Rodrigo Ochigame, a doctoral student in MIT’s Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society.

The grant will fund the original production and harvesting of machine-readable metadata about relations among publications, literatures, and authors in anthropology, which will be available on an open-access basis. This metadata will power an experimental search tool to be launched on the new SCA website in 2019. The grant will also support the development of integrated search capabilities across the two software platforms that the new site will span. In the future, this integration will allow the SCA to incorporate Relata’s approach into its own site search.

“We are grateful to the MIT-SenseTime Alliance for recognizing the value of infusing machine intelligence with a critical, plural sensibility,” said Paxson, who is William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Anthropology at MIT. “We’re also excited to build on the SCA’s longstanding commitment to experimentation in scholarly communication.”