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Searching quantitative data for historians: 1. Via secondary sources

Data embedded in the literature

A useful starting point for searching for data is secondary literature.

By reading sources you gain insight in the topic. This helps you to come up with good keywords to search with. It also shows you the authors who are considered specialists on your chosen subject. 

Scholarly literature may contain visualizations of data such as graphs, tables, and references to data in printed or in digital form. Sometimes a link to the dataset is provided, giving access to the dataset but also showing in which data archive it is published. This data archive can contain more relevant datasets for your research. 

Besides using references to data, you can also search if the data collected for the study you are reading is published in printed or digital form (as in the example below).


To sum up, secondary sources about your topic are useful to search for relevant datasets in multiple ways:

  • For relevant search words and authors who have written about your topic. 
  • For useful data visualizations 
  • For references to datasets that are either originally unpublished (from archives) or published (in printed or in digital form).
  • To see in which data archive, repository or subject specific database the referenced data is published.
  • To see if the underlying dataset of the specific article or book is published (in printed or in digital form)

Searching for secondary sources using datasets

In the same search engines where you find citations of secondary sources, you can search for the sources using datasets. You can use keywords related to your topic combined with the keywords: datasets OR "data set" (both forms are common in English). You can try again with more detailed keywords related to data: like "statistics OR empirical OR quantitative OR numeric" or "graph OR table OR figure" etc...

  • Multidisciplinary browser: Google Scholar (with UBUlink)
  • Multidisciplinary database (peer reviewed sources): Scopus
  • Discipline related database: Historical Abstracts
  • Topic related database: Urban History Bibliography (publications from 1974 onwards. Limited collection with a basic search interface)

Datasets in data journals

Via secondary sources, you may come across data journals publishing exclusively data, without articles. Example: Research Data Journal for the Humanities and Social Sciences (open access and peer reviewed). Some regular academic journals have a supplement for datasets. For example Journal of Economic History Data repository
In the humanities, data journals are a new phenomenon, and therefore quite rare. This is why it is very unlikely to find relevant datasets on your topic by searching directly within a data journal.

Example of datasets via secondary sources: From Baghdad to London

An article can contain useful data visualizations, as tables and figures. Sometimes the underlying dataset used for the publication is published online.

Take for example the article From Baghdad to London: Unraveling Urban Development in Europe, the Middle East and North-Africa, 800-1800. In this article tables and figures are found, but the underlying dataset is also published online. To find this dataset a few steps need to be taken, which are given below.

Step 1. In this article, you will find different visualizations of data: tables and figures. This is already relevant data, but the text does not contain a link to the underlying dataset.


Step 2. The article refers to a supplemental appendix where the collected data is documented in detail. The appendix contains no link to the dataset, nor a citation of the dataset. You will need to set an extra step to obtain it.

Step 3. Plain Google search: try and combine the title of the article with the keyword "dataset". This is a direct search, as you a searching for a dataset of a know article. You will directly find the link to the original data used by the authors of the article.

Step 4. The dataset you find via Google is archived on the site of the Harvard Dataverse data repository. The title is: "Replication data for: From Baghdad to London: Unraveling Urban Development in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, 800-1800". On top of the page, you can find the title of the dataset and how you can cite it. In three tabs, you can find the datasets and additional information.

  • Files (picture): 1. Downloadable datasets (Excel/Stata) 2. Description of the variables (pdf). 
  • Metadata & Version: available information about the datasets.
  • Terms: conditions to reuse the datasets