The Genecology Project: Experimental Taxonomy in Britain

The Genecology Project is a collaborative, interdisciplinary, student-run investigation of the agro-ecological field of genecology, also known as experimental taxonomy, in post-WWII Britain. We use computational methods in conjunction with archival materials, oral histories, and social network analysis to reconstruct and contextualize the shifting patterns of collaboration and discourse among plant ecologists who engaged in genecological research.

The Genecology Project represents a new mode of scholarship in the humanities. The Project is developed using open-source tools and scalable methods that allow scholars from a variety of institutions, ranks, and interests to contribute to our growing knowledge-base. Rather than storing up data privately for use in single-author monographs, our vision for the Genecology Project is to create a living and public dataset that meets the highest standards of scholarship, and can be reused and reinterpreted by other researchers and the public.


  • Promote and support historical and philosophical inquiry into plant sciences.
  • Create and make available digital knowledge-base of collaborations and institutional affiliations extracted from the scientific literature, secondary historical literature, oral histories, and archives.
  • Collect and share oral histories that shed light on the history of genecological research.
  • Model genecological research literature using network analysis and topic modeling, and scrutinize the impact of social and institutional network structure on patterns of language and discourse.
  • Illuminate the history of ecology through an interactive website that allows users to explore the GP knowledge-base temporally, spatially, and thematically.
  • Solicit and integrate contributions to the knowledge-base from other science-studies scholars.
  • Intellectual Merits.

    The decades following WWII were a period of expansion and transformation in ecological research. In Britain, arguments about the nature and study of intraspecific variation and adaptation in plants led to new models of evolutionary change in heterogeneous environments, setting the stage for fields like ecological genetics and evolutionary population ecology in the 1960s and ‘70s. The GP scrutinizes these transformations and their linkages to shifting agricultural, economic, and institutional factors. In contrast to the standard case-study model, the GP takes a bottom-up approach that starts with a broad view of investigative activity in this field, and uses computational methods to uncover and scrutinize patterns of scientific activity and discourse.

    Broader Impacts.

    The GP breaks new ground in HPS research by implementing and integrating new digital and computational methods, and by pioneering a new collaborative research model for historical scholarship. As part of the ASU Digital Innovation Group, the GP creates new educational resources, opportunities, and experiences for students in biology, computer science, and the humanities. The GP engages scientists, policy-makers, and lay audiences with the history of ecology through interactive online exhibits, and presentations and exhibits at scientific conferences.


    The first phase of the GP is building a corpus of research publications by British genecologists from the 1940s through the 1980s, and using those documents to reconstruct the network of collaboration and exchange among those scientists. This involves collecting articles, extracting text via Optical Character Recognition, and annotating texts using Vogon. We anticipate a final corpus size of around 1,300 documents.

    Tools & Infrastructure.

  • Digital HPS Community Repository
  • Vogon - Digital text-annotation and network-building tool
  • Quadriga - Web-based platform for collaborative digital research
  • InPhO Vector Space Model - Topic-modeling algorithms
  • Tethne - Tools for citation-based network analysis in Python
  • Oral Histories

    In keeping with our commitment to a grounded, bottom-up approach to the history of genecology, we collect oral histories from a variety of people who were involved in genecological research. Recordings and transcripts of oral history interviews are made publicly available through the Digital History and Philosophy of Science Consortium's Community Repository. These oral histories provide valuable data for our network reconstructions, and will be used to enrich interactive online exhibitions.


    Erick Peirson (

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