New Topologies of Scientific Practice
Location 111
Date and Start Time 02 September, 2016 at 16:00
Sessions 1


  • Robert Montoya (University of California, Los Angeles) email
  • Geoffrey Bowker (University of California, Irvine) email

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Short Abstract

This panel explores how specific digital infrastructures reassemble the human, technical, and data output of traditional scientific activity, and how by doing so, constitute spaces for rearticulating and forming new topologies of knowledge, moving beyond 'linear' expressions to more complex forms.

Long Abstract

Digital infrastructures are invaluable tools for the production of scientific activity: they organize and analyze data, foster communication and collaboration, distribute and publish knowledge entities (in often open environments), and serve as an archive for scientific knowledge. Beyond the mediating and facilitating qualities of these apparatuses, they also represent forms of scientific knowledge in-and-of themselves as assemblages of policies, knowledge organizing principles, and technical negotiations. The architecture of these constructed spaces both reflect traditional modes of knowledge expression and reassemble it into new forms. In this panel, we ask:

• How does the transforming of physical space to the digital environment problematize or flatten how we understand the constitution of scientific knowledge?

• How does the presence of these technical infrastructures influence the way we go about approaching scientific problems?

• How do these digital spaces become institutionalized and part of our interpretation of what it means to 'do' science and 'organize' scientific output?

This panel will explore the ways in which specific digital infrastructures reassemble the human, technical, and data output of traditional scientific activity, and how by doing so, constitute new spaces for the rearticulation of scientific knowledge and create new topologies of knowledge--moving beyond 'linear' expression (written text) to more complex forms.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Database Projection: Repositioning Knowledge in Biodiversity Taxonomic Databases

Author: Robert Montoya (University of California, Los Angeles)  email

Short Abstract

Acknowledging databases as projected forms of knowledge, this paper examines how biodiversity taxonomic data is transformed as it moves from locally specific domains into the global Catalogue of Life, and how such transportation creates new topological forms of taxonomic knowledge.

Long Abstract

Maps require the representational flattening of three-dimensional global surfaces; this transformation is called a 'map projection.' Databases, too, project compressed versions of reality--a reality that is transformed in any number of ways, distilled into specific measurements and values, and recombined into schemas and ontological relationships. Central to the organization of these biodiversity databases are biological taxonomies, which provide a new terra firma upon which all digital objects within a database take their shape. This paper uses ethnographic methods to examine the intellectual composition of biodiversity database taxonomies, and in particular, the Catalogue of Life (CoL), an authoritative taxonomic framework that concatenates disparate taxonomic databases into a uniform resource, to unpack how these digital spaces project and represent new topological spaces of biodiversity knowledge. How are subsidiary taxonomies assessed for inclusion into, and reformulated to conform to, the CoL data standards? How are points of ontological incommensurability managed and reconciled? How are taxonomies 're-scaled' through these various layers of reformulation? I explore the inherent tension between a global taxonomy's position as an intellectually comprehensive and authoritative infrastructure, and the way its uniform representation of knowledge dilutes the spatial diversity of contributed taxonomies, and potentially excludes divergent modes of representing, classificatory interpretation, and entity relationships. This analysis pulls from various literatures, including information studies, infrastructure studies, biodiversity studies, and systematics. It seeks to broaden our understanding of how technical infrastructures reshape the location- and temporally-specific values of scientific knowledge in big data repositories.

Infrastructures for barcoding life: topologies of reciprocity and control

Author: Claire Waterton (Lancaster University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines how genomes and barcodes, fused through the 'Barcoding of Life Initiative', re-assemble the global endeavour to characterise biological species and diversity; simultaneously establishing new moral circuitries of creativity, reciprocity and control in different sites of use.

Long Abstract

This paper draws on ethnographic research that examines how genomes and barcodes, fused through the digital infrastructures of the 'Barcoding of Life Initiative' (BOLI), effectively re-assemble global endeavours to characterise biological species and species diversity. I trace how BOLI's digital barcoding infrastructure comes to be used for the identification of species in different sites of application - fish markets, polluted freshwater lakes, and sites of sleeping sickness disease. As 'barcoding' travels it excites the imagination and creativity of its users. It also raises issues of 'computation, automation and control' (Ziewitz 2016). If 'control' through barcoding infrastructures once incorporated a kind of 'feedback' into existing taxonomic topologies, such control has now gained a very extended and distributed form. Whilst there is a strong sense of creative appropriation and forward movement associated with developments in BOLI, reciprocal ties and circulations become stretched and possibly fragile.

Innovation and Analogical Extension in Scholarly Communication

Author: Timothy Elfenbein (University of California, Irvine)  email

Short Abstract

As start-up tech companies reimagine components of the scholarly communication system, are observers too quick to assimilate the new into the known? This presentation will discuss the analogical extensions used to understand, the social-network and document-sharing platform.

Long Abstract

As start-up companies reimagine components of the scholarly communication system, are observers too quick to assimilate the new into the known? This presentation will discuss the case of, a social-network and document-sharing platform and the debates it has stirred. Launched in 2008, the platform boasts over thirty-million users and ten-million documents, and has raised 17.7 million dollars in venture-capital. While the company has succeeded in attracting the largest user base among academic social-network platforms, it has also attracted controversy over its platform design and business model. has been subsumed into discussions about scholarly communication through two analogical extensions. Many librarians see the platform as a digital-document repository for grey literature, akin to subject and institutional repositories that are core infrastructure for green open-access. This perspective leads to evaluations of whether fulfills the functions of a repository. Radical open-access advocates see as a data-mining information intermediary, akin to social-media or search-engine companies. This equivalence folds into critiques of neoliberalism and the commoditization of science.

Even as these analogical extensions provide the critical purchase of established analytical frameworks, they hinder the recognition of shifts in a sociotechnical assemblage. The social-network architecture of's platform enables discovery mechanisms that differ from those based on the knowledge-organization schemes used by libraries. And the company has yet to settle on a business model, looking at job advertisements and author-pays gold open-access publishing as possible sources of revenue. What forms of analysis will enable a better appreciation of still emergent system?

Scholarly Accounting of Scholarly Code

Author: Seth Erickson (UCLA)  email

Short Abstract

Characterizing scholarly software development as a knowledge practice, this paper presents forms of code description and analysis through which computational physicists and digital humanities researchers negotiate technical constraints and scholarly commitments.

Long Abstract

How and when is software development an epistemological issue in digital scholarship? In both the sciences and the humanities, strategies for designing, building, and maintaining software are increasingly recognized as supportive of, or detrimental to, the knowledge claims derived from computational processes. Software development is typically conceptualized as the practical matter of implementing specifiable computational tools, not as an iterative process of materializing theoretical and epistemological orientations. Building on understandings of software development as an ongoing, human-centered practice, on the one hand, and theories of scholarly work that emphasize the materialization of knowledge objects, on the other, this paper presents software development as a knowledge practice. Particular attention is given to forms of description and analysis through which aspects of code are linked to specific scholarly commitments. While some practices for representing and understanding scholarly software are derived from the tradition of software engineering, others are endogenous to specific academic communities. Examples from case studies of two academic communities---computational physicists developing plasma simulations and digital humanities scholars building web-based publishing tools---are presented. Ethnographic fieldwork and technical histories of observed software practices are used to understand how scholarly and technical commitments are negotiated and sustained during the development and maintenance of software at each site.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.