The trajectory of biological research may be affected by historical factors (such as locations of influential researchers) as well as by underlying biological dimensions (such as species diversity and location of potential study taxa). Such influences on research focus can be clarified by examining the topics of published papers. Based on 93,816 scientific papers published on snake biology since 1804 (from Web of Science), we found a nonrandom distribution of research output among snake clades, fields of research, and geographic locations and strong changes through time in overall research effort as well as in the foci of that work. Snakes have been the subject of more scientific papers than other lineages of reptiles, but research on turtles has been increasing faster, and research effort per species has been higher for smaller reptile lineages. Studies on systematics and taxonomy dominated snake research until the mid-20th century, when the field was overtaken by studies of venoms, ecology, morphology, and physiology. Colubrids and Vipers have been the most intensively studied taxa, reflecting a concentration of research on continents (Europe and the Americas) where these taxa are diverse and abundant. Research effort on Vipers (Viperidae) increased around 1920, reflecting advances in antivenom and radiotelemetry technology. Blindsnakes (Scolecophidia) and smaller families remain relatively neglected in absolute terms. The numbers of papers per species are 10-fold greater for North American and European snakes than those in most other regions. We attribute these nonrandom patterns to temporal and spatial variation in research priorities, methods, and availability of scientific infrastructure.