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Ship space to database: emerging infrastructures for studies of the deep subseafloor biosphere
PeerJ Computer Science (2016)
  • Peter T. Darch, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
  • Christine L. Borgman, University of California, Los Angeles
An increasing array of scientific fields face a “data deluge.” However, in many fields data are scarce, with implications for their epistemic status and ability to command funding. Consequently, they often attempt to develop infrastructure for data production, management, curation, and circulation. A component of a knowledge infrastructure may serve one or more scientific domains. Further, a single domain may rely upon multiple infrastructures simultaneously. Studying how domains negotiate building and accessing scarce infrastructural resources that they share with other domains will shed light on how knowledge infrastructures shape science.

We conducted an eighteen-month, qualitative study of scientists studying the deep subseafloor biosphere, focusing on the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI) and the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) and its successor, the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP2). Our methods comprised ethnographic observation, including eight months embedded in a laboratory, interviews (n = 49), and document analysis.

Deep subseafloor biosphere research is an emergent domain. We identified two reasons for the domain’s concern with data scarcity: limited ability to pursue their research objectives, and the epistemic status of their research. Domain researchers adopted complementary strategies to acquire more data. One was to establish C-DEBI as an infrastructure solely for their domain. The second was to use C-DEBI as a means to gain greater access to, and reconfigure, IODP/IODP2 to their advantage. IODP/IODP2 functions as infrastructure for multiple scientific domains, which creates competition for resources. C-DEBI is building its own data management infrastructure, both to acquire more data from IODP and to make better use of data, once acquired.

Two themes emerge. One is data scarcity, which can be understood only in relation to a domain’s objectives. To justify support for public funding, domains must demonstrate their utility to questions of societal concern or existential questions about humanity. The deep subseafloor biosphere domain aspires to address these questions in a more statistically intensive manner than is afforded by the data to which it currently has access. The second theme is the politics of knowledge infrastructures. A single scientific domain may build infrastructure for itself and negotiate access to multi-domain infrastructure simultaneously. C-DEBI infrastructure was designed both as a response to scarce IODP/IODP2 resources, and to configure the data allocation processes of IODP/IODP2 in their favor.
Publication Date
Winter November 14, 2016
Citation Information
Peter T. Darch and Christine L. Borgman. "Ship space to database: emerging infrastructures for studies of the deep subseafloor biosphere" PeerJ Computer Science Vol. 2:e97 (2016) Available at: Also available at