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Biomedicine in museums

Authors or participants?

By November 28, 2006No Comments

Tonight I am going to bed in company with a month-old (26 October) issue of Nature which carries the article that reports on the sequence of the honeybee genome. There are about 50 different species genomes sequenced or in the process of sequencing at the moment, but this is clearly one of the more interesting because of its potential power to elucidate the genetics of social behaviour.

What’s equally fascinating (as others have perhaps already observed in other multiauthor scientific papers) is that the 197 “participants” from 90 institutions all over the world are listed according to their functional position in the Honeybee Genome Sequencing Consortium, like “principal investigators” (2 persons), “DNA sequencing” (“only” 26 persons), “data management”, “genome assembly”, etc. Even “funding agency management” staff is listed in the paper. (It reminds me of the end credits of a movie: producers, instructors, 1st camera crew, gaffers, key grip, postproduction, catering etc. Will next step for consortium-produced scientific articles be to list IT service and kitchen staff as well?)

(Added: 29 Nov: Turns out that other sequencing consortia publish according to the same principle. E.g., the Sea Urchin Genome Sequencing Consortium’s final report in Science 10 Nov. 2006 also lists the participants in functional groups. Is there a long tradition for this?)

The organisation of the “participant” (they deliberately talk of “participants” rather than “authors”) list reinforces one of the arguments that some historians of science and science studies scholars have made against the genre of biography, viz., that contemporary science marginalizes the individual author. This is not exactly the same argument against the author that Barthes, Foucault and other poststructuralists forwarded in the 1970s, but it works in the same direction.

My counter-argument is that multi-authored (sorry, multi-participant-generated) scientific articles don’t necessarily extinguish the individual subject, but reorganise it. Neither does it make biography impossible, but it redefines the scope and purpose of biographical narratives. The main characters of biographies of recent biomedical scientists become more like the protagonists of modern suspense fiction, like detective Kurt Wallander of the Ystad police station team in Hanning Manckell’s books.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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