Hidden in the Middle: Culture, Value and Reward in Bioinformatics

Minerva 54 (4):471-490 (2016)
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Abstract

Bioinformatics – the so-called shotgun marriage between biology and computer science – is an interdiscipline. Despite interdisciplinarity being seen as a virtue, for having the capacity to solve complex problems and foster innovation, it has the potential to place projects and people in anomalous categories. For example, valorised ‘outputs’ in academia are often defined and rewarded by discipline. Bioinformatics, as an interdisciplinary bricolage, incorporates experts from various disciplinary cultures with their own distinct ways of working. Perceived problems of interdisciplinarity include difficulties of making explicit knowledge that is practical, theoretical, or cognitive. But successful interdisciplinary research also depends on an understanding of disciplinary cultures and value systems, often only tacitly understood by members of the communities in question. In bioinformatics, the ‘parent’ disciplines have different value systems; for example, what is considered worthwhile research by computer scientists can be thought of as trivial by biologists, and vice versa. This paper concentrates on the problems of reward and recognition described by scientists working in academic bioinformatics in the United Kingdom. We highlight problems that are a consequence of its cross-cultural make-up, recognising that the mismatches in knowledge in this borderland take place not just at the level of the practical, theoretical, or epistemological, but also at the cultural level too. The trend in big, interdisciplinary science is towards multiple authors on a single paper; in bioinformatics this has created hybrid or fractional scientists who find they are being positioned not just in-between established disciplines but also in-between as middle authors or, worse still, left off papers altogether.

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