Gilmer Post 5: “Going Native” with Latour

In the last class meeting, I mentioned that I do work in data entry/analysis for Faculty Affairs. Part of the work I’m conducting right now requires me to familiarize myself with the work of CU’s renowned scientists (essentially, I’m curating their CVs electronically). For the first time in my life, I’m sifting through hundreds of scientific publications a day from such disciplines as physics, biochem, medicine, meteorology, etc. Usually, this leaves me attempting to remember vocab terms from my high school biology class. What’s the difference between tRNA and mRNA? Doesn’t nephritis have something to do with kidneys…? To help inspire this alienating feeling in you fine folks, I’ll provide a link to a Khachatryan article (I typically review hundreds of publications by this man in a day’s work):

This article, thrillingly titled “Search for the standard model Higgs boson decaying to bottom quarks in pp collisions at root s=7 TeV,” certainly qualifies as work outside my realm of expertise. (To quote Kel Mitchell from Good Burger, “I know some of these words!”) What’s further baffling is that the article cites something like one thousand authors. I can’t be precise about that number since I don’t have the time to sit down and count, but the authors and their 206 affiliations take up more space than the article itself.


The first time I read through one of these massive authorial lists, I tried to imagine the conditions of the article’s production. Laboratory Life claims that the lab’s “material environment very rarely receives mention” in the construction of published articles (69), and like Latour and Woolgar, I’m left wondering about how many “rats had been fled and beheaded, frogs had been flayed, chemicals consumed, time spent, careers had been made or broken” (88) in the production of such articles. As observers of the laboratory space and function, they describe “going native” to capture “daily encounters, working discussions, gestures, and a variety of unguarded behavior” (153) –almost imagining themselves as humanistic Jane Goodall’s watching chimps in their natural habitat. And while their observations speak to many of my questions, others go unanswered. For instance, Latour’s studies prioritize a single lab and its inhabitants, many of which are in constant daily communication. If you peruse my linked list of author affiliations, you’ll note a variety of laboratories and countries across the world. Do these people all work together, in one space? One thousand like-minded scientists, flying in from points all over the globe to discuss this not-so-groundbreaking article? Seems unlikely. For me, this raised a myriad of other questions. How many of these researchers have met? Communicated? Which of them are actually putting the article together? As Jaime mentioned to me, many scientists aren’t even notified when they are cited in publications like these. Would it be unreasonable to ask, therefore, which of the cited authors have even read the final product?

Latour and Woolgar describe the laboratory as a “system of literary inscription” solely focused on “the continual generation of a variety of documents” (105, 151), supporting this argument with a breakdown of laboratory finances. They calculate that “the cost of producing a paper was $60,000 in 1975 and $30,000 in 1976. Clearly, papers were an expensive commodity” (73). Their notion of “papers” as financial commodities/objects of production and certainly aligns with my own understanding of scholarly articles, and provides an explanation for scientists’ speedy rate of publication. But I feel that scientific authorship may have shifted since the release of Laboratory Life (1975) in ways that subvert the notion of a laboratory as a shared site of creation.

2 thoughts on “Gilmer Post 5: “Going Native” with Latour

  1. ebcousins says:

    The focus on a single lab really makes me think based on our conversation last week about Jaime’s lab experience / the lack of human interaction, etc. And these huge publications with so many names! I wonder what role virtual labs play in scientific research–Latour and Woolgar focus so much on the material / direct social contact. It would be interesting to look at the virtual side of the social and spatial as well!


  2. rjones2155 says:

    I also wonder how perhaps some of the observations may be a little outdated. Perhaps many collaborations take place like similar DH work, through communications like emails, Skype, Google Hangouts or more. Perhaps scientific work is still isolated, but less so? That’s why I’m not entirely sure about, and I wonder if a follow-up study can be done to update old information or practices.


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