Superheroes like Mr Fantastic are used to being watched, and bioinformaticians better  get used to it, too. Like superheroes, bioinformaticians are adored by the public for their powers as well as their dress sense. And while superheroes have their own Superbeing watching from the moon (Uatu the Watcher), bioinformaticians have their own tribe of sociologists stalking them, as a recent insider report has revealed.

I had read Hallam Steven’s book on the ethnography of bioinformatics, but until I saw the paper by Bartlett, Penders and Lewis (BPL) in BMC Bioinformatics, I had not realised that there was a whole subculture of sociology devoted to watching, interpreting, and researching bioinformatics.

So what do the sociologists do? Well, one thing is “observational and ethnographic fieldwork at conferences and meetings”, which I think simply means going to ISMB and watching people.

The other thing are surveys and quantitative analyses, for example using logistic regression to figure out what impact your age has on how you answer the question “Is bioinformatics a discipline or a service?” The statistics say that I am an old fart.

Power to the people!

Jokes aside, I find sociological papers very interesting to read.

First of all, what sociologists bring to the table is a whole set of theories and concepts that can shine a surprising light on science:

Science, from [the sociological] point of view, is inextricably bound into the institutional and organisational arrangements that shape and influence the work being done and the people doing the work, as well as the distribution of power between scientists, disciplines, and institutions. *

This is why sociological papers will discuss concepts like power structure, values, historical narrative, and identity. That’s definitely different from what I chat to other bioinformaticians about.

Sociological studies were an eye-opener for me;  they made me realise how many discussion that look scientific are actually about power and money. Rather than the pure pursuit of truth, science is about power and setting boundaries:

Those within the discipline get to set (and police) the boundaries of that discipline, determine what is to be valued, and how best to produce knowledge. *

This is why the discussion about the status of bioinformatics is so important and why bioinformaticians need to play an active role in defining and defending their foundational role in biology.

A mirror for the bioinformatics community

Second, when it comes to describing our field, sociologists should have fewer biases than actual practitioners of bioinformatics. And, completely contrary to myself for example, they might have no agenda on how to form the field in the future. Sociologists are impassive observers, the Uatus of Bioinformatics.

Thus, reading sociological papers shows how our field looks to outsiders.

With this in mind, let’s discuss one of the sociological jargon terms BPL use, the so-called “inscriptions“. This term goes back to the book Laboratory Life by Latour and Woolgar, who interpreted lab equipment as “inscription device[s]” that have the sole purpose of “transform[ing] a material substance into a figure or diagram”.

Ok, let’s just assume for a second that this is indeed a reasonable description of laboratory work.

BPL then distinguish between ‘primary inscriptions‘ and ‘secondary inscriptions‘.

It is laboratory work – the ‘wet-lab’ – that first translates the matter of life into data (producing ‘primary inscriptions’), after which bioinformaticians, working in the ‘dry-lab’, carry out further transformations (producing ‘secondary inscriptions’) *

Now, you will not be surprised that I entirely disagree with this description of bioinformatics.

Just look at a machine for DNA sequencing. Imagine, you have put genomic stuff (=the matter of life) in on one end, what do you think is the first diagram or figure (= the inscription) that you expect to see as a result?

Few scientists will inspect printouts of individual reads. Rather, they expect a pretty genome browser track that tells them where in the genome the reads came from. And what do you need to produce that inscription? Lots and lots of bioinformatics to manage the reads and align them to some genome.

So it is completely incorrect to say that bioinformatics is in any sense secondary to wet-lab work. At least in genomics, there is no primary inscription without bioinformatics.

I would argue that all this library preparation and sequencing is only preparatory work for the actual science, which is bioinformatics.

Why did BPL get this so wrong?

The plumbers of biology

If it is true that sociologists are impassive and unbiased Watchers, there is only one possible answer: the bioinformaticians they interviewed must have given them a distorted view of the importance of their activities.

This also shows in BPL’s general description of modern bioinformatics:

In some cases, the development of tools that are used by life scientists renders the intellectual contribution of bioinformaticians invisible, hidden in the ‘black box’.

As a consequence, despite bioinformatics being central to the current life science landscape, it is often institutionally peripheral, less an academic accomplishment, and more a ubiquitous tool required to do post-genomic science. *

So, BPL realise that bioinformatics is central, but apparently, the bioinformaticians interviewed by BPL told them the opposite.

The lesson from this is: if you want to your work to be valued, be careful how you talk about it.

If you want respect, don’t talk like a plumber. Don’t talk about tools and pipelines. Rather talk about how your methods and analyses make sense of life.

Because, remember, all biology is computational biology.



Bioinformatics: indispensable, yet hidden in plain sight?
Andrew Bartlett, Bart Penders and Jamie Lewis. BMC Bioinformatics 2017

Life Out Of Sequence (2013, University of Chicago Press)
Hallam Stevens

4 thoughts on “The sociology of bioinformatics – Or: The Watchers are among us!

  1. That’s very interesting! We’ve certainly found it enjoyable (and enlightening) to have our work discussed by those working in bioinformatics, especially those outside of the people that we interviewed. It’s certainly hard “studying up”, researching and writing about communities that might read your papers (and disagree with them).

    Two questions: where did you find that photo of me at the top of the page? And can we quote re: “plumbers” you in our next paper?


    1. Hello! Thanks for your comment. The photo must be from your webpage I guess, and yes, quote me on the plumbers or maybe just put them in the title of your next paper.

      About the disagreeing … First of all, I am not even a bioinformatician (I just pretend to be one in this post to keep it simple), I am actually a computational biologist, which is something completely different, as you will obviously know. And second, I think you completely correctly described how bioinformatics can look to outsiders – I just think this is not how it should be. So in a way I disagree more with the bioinformaticians you interviewed (when actually was that?) than I disagree with your analysis.



  2. Another plumbing-inspector reporting.

    We talked to bioinformaticians (face to face, and via a survey) over the course of a decade. The earliest of these conversations took place in 2003.

    The study of cultures such as bioinformatics, computational biology or even the life sciences, makes advances just as incremental as the study of biology, and given that it is an ever-moving target, we really appreciate all the feedback. It helps us advance our understanding, helps us establish which new developments need to be taken into account, and helps us establish new leads for new sociological questions. Those often have real policy-relevance and sociologists and policy-makers rub shoulders more often than you’d think.

    What I take from this is that in the context of the life sciences, computational biology, bioinformatics, systems biology and a few others are all mixtures of experimental/laboratory styles of reasoning and algorthmic/mathematical styles of reasoning. The ways in which synthesis of those is pursued, the ways in which it is achieved and the resulting emulsion all come in different flavours, resulting in different subcultures to be studied (for us), different knowledge produced (by them), and different labels that circulte, yet remarkably similar problems when it comes to establishing power in existing scientific circles.

    You can count on us looking into this (and other stuff) 😉


    1. Thank you for your comments.

      > the resulting emulsion all come in different flavours
      Yes. And if you want to distinguish computational biology from bioinformatics from systems biology – the flavours are Pepsi versus Coca Cola.

      > remarkably similar problems when it comes to establishing power in existing scientific circles.
      I am sure this is correct. We are all outsiders with non-bio training doing biological research, no matter what label we prefer.

      I will definitely follow your updates.


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