Encoding Collective Knowledge, Instructing Data Reusers: The Collaborative Fixation of a Digital Scientific Data Set
This article provides a novel perspective on the use and reuse of scientific data by providing a chronological ethnographic account and analysis of how a team of researchers prepared an astronomical catalogue (a table of measured properties of galaxies) for public release. Whereas much existing work on data reuse has focused on information about data (such as metadata), whose form or lack has been described as a hurdle for reusing data successfully, I describe how data makers tried to instruct users through the processed data themselves. The fixation of this catalogue was a negotiation, resulting in what was acceptable to team members and coherent with the diverse data uses pertinent to their completed work. It was through preparing their catalogue as an ‘instructing data object’ that this team seeked to encode its members’ knowledge of how the data were processed and to make it consequential for users by devising methodical ways to structure anticipated uses. These methods included introducing redundancies that would help users to self-correct mistaken uses, selectively deleting data, and deflecting accountability through making notational choices. They dwell on an understanding of knowledge not as exclusively propositional (such as the belief in propositions), but as embedded in witnessable activities and the products of these activities. I discuss the implications of this account for philosophical notions of collective knowledge and for theorizing coordinative artifacts in CSCW. Eventually, I identify a tension between ‘using algorithms’ and ‘doing science’ in preparing data sets and show how it was resolved in this case.