Authors and Impresarios: How to Move Across Disciplines


A conversation with Mario Biagioli.

Mario Biagioli is a Distinguished Professor of Law and Science and Technology Studies, as well as Director of the Center for Science and Innovation Studies at the University of California, Davis. Prior to his time at Davis, he was a Professor of History of Science at Harvard University, specialising in intellectual property in science. His major research interests have been around the problems of authorship and priority attribution in science. He is the author of Galileo, Courtier (Chicago, 1993) and Galileo’s Instruments of Credit (Chicago, 2006).

His disciplinary wanderings have included computer science, photography, and history of science, and more recently intellectual property law. He edited three important interdisciplinary volumes: The Science Studies Reader (Routledge, 1998), Scientific Authorship (Routledge, 2003, with Peter Galison) and Making and Unmaking Intellectual Property (Chicago, 2011, with Peter Jaszi and Martha Woodmansee). Currently he is working on The Author as Vegetable, a book about the effects of environmental metaphors in contemporary discussions of the knowledge commons.

Hyo Yoon Kang sat down with Biagioli in April to discuss interdisciplinary methodology, the authorial implications of networking, and the productive peril of metaphors. This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.



Hyo Yoon Kang: You have moved around a lot of different disciplines. Could you say which ones were the most formative for you?

Mario Biagioli: I started out in computer science in Italy, which I actually never completed, then I moved to photography, doing an MFA in photography, then history of science, now science studies and law, especially intellectual property. Looking back, the notion of ‘formative’ takes many dimensions and meanings. I never thought that computer science was part of my current way of thinking, but then I realized that I cannot stay away from developing an argument about whether it is good or bad. There is a certain focus and commitment to trying to figure out what happens or has happened, which I actually think goes back to computer science. I don’t think of models and algorithms, but I am also unable to approach a topic in a fluid way. I need to figure out a puzzle: what is the puzzle, and how can I solve it?

HYK: You mean like a kind of problem solving?

MB: Really, it is more like puzzle solving. It might not be even clear whether it is a problem worth solving, but which I construe as solving. I tend to latch on to a specific puzzle, which can be theoretical or material. I need to study something small which strikes me as an interesting puzzle.

HYK: How did you get from computer science to photography to science studies? What were the junctions which made you jump?

MB: Looking back it is clear—as much as I would like to see a pattern—it was a chain of more or less accidents. I got out of computer science because it was too early. Back in Italy at that time there were no interesting jobs; banks were the only places which had computers. I got into photography just because I loved it and got out because I happened to be taking some graduate course in philosophy of science that made me very interested, but also the fact there were no jobs for a recent MFA.

HYK: Was there any correlation between your interest in authorship and photography?

MB: Not really. The work in authorship started out as one of these little puzzles. I was reading a lot of early modern book dedications where you would find statements by the author who was addressing the patron: ‘This work would have not been possible without you’. At first I thought this is the usual baroque patronage rhetoric, but then I wondered in what way the patron might have been really involved in the work. What does it mean that the work was not possible without the person? I googled scientific authorship and then discovered that there was a raging debate about what it means to be an author and what it means that a patron could be listed as an author. So I literally jumped from 1620 to 1995 just as a result of the Google search! [Laughs] And I realized that there was a big problem, and an interesting configuration of people to talk to in order to figure out what the problem was. From there, I noticed that a lot of scientists were also patenting whilst publishing scientific papers and I started reading into patent law to make sense of what authorship meant to those who both published and patented. So you could say that I was kind of following the problem around.

HYK: How did you find jumping across the disciplines? Was it easy for you to find a common language? When you moved to history of science, for example, did you find yourself having to accumulate a whole new vocabulary?

MB: Actually going back to your question about the relevance of the various disciplines that I have gone through, the discipline of history of science was very relevant and influential, but not so much for the way of thinking. Thinking about computer science as a discipline, it effectively did not have an empirical subject when I got into it. It was all about modeling, turning a problem into an algorithm and then writing software that would either simulate it or solve it. In a sense that was the beauty of the field: the actual material mattered. In history it was the opposite. [Laughs] Everything was about extreme specificity. Historians are not known as particularly analytically-oriented thinkers, but there, the training was very interesting and influential, that is, the emphasis on working with primary sources, going to archives, learning how to keep notes, and also the commitment to a long-term project. You could not just say, ‘Okay, this is interesting, let me do something on it, and then I will do something else’, but it was rather, ‘I need to go to the archive for a year and before I go to the archive, I have to study this for another year to put together a grant application’. The change of scale in terms of construing a project was something that I had never done before.

And also unlike computer science, history didn’t really have much of a methodology. In that sense, history can be somewhat boring because sometimes you feel that the argument is kind of lacking, but at the same time it is a very free discipline because you can start with whatever you want. Provided that you start with some material and you do the leg work, you can say pretty much what you want. So it is like a kind of methodology-light, and it is precisely because it is methodology-light that it is practice-heavy, in terms of mundane practices. Hmh, you know, it was very interesting, this disciplining in the profound sense—there were certain things that I felt I had to do in order to be taken seriously, meaning doing research, blah blah blah, but it was also freeing because it was like, ‘Well, there is this evidence and it is up to you what to say about it’.

HYK: So it really added the interpretive layer…

MB: …precisely because there was no dominant methodology. So there was no expectation that you have to tell a certain kind of story. Of course if you are unimaginative, you can do a chronological story that unfortunately many historians do. But effectively if you do believe—and this is not my belief, but it is the belief of the discipline—in ‘letting the material speak’, then you can bend the material in a lot of different ways. I think this, as a discipline, is very different from, say, sociology, where you have a methodological canon. Anthropology is probably a bit less so—there you have different competing canons. In economics you also have the different methodological canons. In history, you don’t. So history can be bizarrely boring and liberating at the same time.

HYK: So, Mario, why did you move away from history and do you still see yourself as a historian of science? Because in your latest professional development, you have moved away from history in a very conscious way, it seems to me.

MB: Yeah, so in history sometimes the details are more important and influential than methodologies and materials. History of science, and especially the subfield I was in, was too small. There is something to be said about the scale: scale matters. Sometimes being in a field that is bigger and where there are more people doing different kind of works, following different kinds of methodology, is by itself interesting.

HYK: Are you thinking of science studies right now?

MB: Yes, I was always attracted to STS, in a sense that the questions were sharper. And I am not necessarily talking about STS today. I am more thinking about the older STS like the sociology of scientific knowledge—which was almost kind of dogmatic—but there were specific questions that the field thought about.

HYK: Like the Edinburgh school?

MB: Yes, the Edinburgh school, and also Collins and the collaborators—all the studies of experimental replications, the problems associated with them, assuming that any scientific claim is unstable to begin with and that it can only be stabilized by mobilizing social resources, etc. In a sense, the theory was a little bit dogmatic because there seemed to be always the same kind of narrative that you would have to adopt about the different materials, but also at the same time there were specific questions. So intellectually it was more ambitious than history of science. I was attracted to STS because of that, mostly, but also because it seemed to be more lively, bigger, and varied. It is interesting to be in a small field where everybody knows the sources (speaking about Galileo studies) which is a very tiny community but one in which people have pretty much read everything. Or to give a different example, people who study Babylonian astronomy. These specialized fields are interesting in that you can have pretty detailed conversations without having to provide a lot of background. And at the same time it is pretty insular. So I think these narrow fields can be both really interesting and in the long term perhaps also really boring. Science studies was something very different, the materials of which were wildly different. You couldn’t have the same conversations, but they were interesting precisely because they were so different from the community I was previously working in.

HYK: What were your important influences?

MB: I would think about this question more in terms of kinship or what I felt most connected to. Looking back it could be interesting to think about the notion of influence in terms of evolution—Darwinian evolution—more like something you bumped into or against, and then deviated. Something which really had an impact and which pushed you in a different direction. That doesn’t mean that the direction was good or bad. It just means that it had an effect. And I think sometimes when I look back on the disciplines I have been through, it is not only that I have learned, but sometimes it is also important that they bored me and that they made me react.

In terms of more specific bodies of work, in history and philosophy of science I was profoundly interested in Kuhn’s works, as probably was mostly everyone in my generation. Looking back I certainly do not have the same feelings now, but it was crucial that engaging with that work made me much more interested in Foucault, and from there to the next one, etc.

The notion of influence was something which literally had an impact, without worrying too much about whether the impact was good or bad. I would rather think about influence asking myself simply whether it was effective and whether it had an effect. If I adopt the perspective of moving around, it is interesting in itself, in the way that it is a trace of accidents. This is quite different from what people often think about influences as something that they really like.

Moving Around

MB: You were asking me about how difficult it is to move around: if you move around, and quite a bit, too—and especially if you move into fields that are not just next door but a few blocks away—the translation is difficult, but that’s what makes it interesting. To give you an example: when I was a photographer and I decided to take a graduate seminar in philosophy of science on a whim, I walked in and I couldn’t even understand what these people were talking about. But that was interesting in and of itself.

HYK: But why did you decide to take the course?

MB: Because I was doing a little project which didn’t go anywhere. It was about history of photography, and I was asking myself, how come people take photos as documents? So I noticed in the university course catalogue that there was a guy teaching a course on the philosophy of measurement, and I thought, ‘Well that sounds like an interesting course’. And of course the instructor was a kind of logical empiricist guy and the course was not about photography. But the steep learning curve was very interesting to begin with. Or later on as a historian of science, reading Foucault and taking Foucault very seriously, not just as a sort of name-dropping—that was not easy. Or to engage with literary theory. I think moving around is interesting when you move around across some significant disciplinary gaps. Like, say, for somebody from STS or history of science to get into law. It’s not next door. [Laughs] And that’s what I think is interesting. I am a great believer in moving around and doing significant jobs. Not just saying ‘Okay, I am doing early modern Italian history and now I am branching into early modern French history’. That’s … [ehmmmm]

HYK: So conceptually there has to be enough of a distance in order to make the moving around productive in the sense of ‘suffering’ sufficient friction?

MB: Yes! And difficult! I think difficulty is crucial because you put in the work, and it allows you to eventually understand the problems, texts, and materials differently than the disciplines understand them. What I am saying is that, as you know from your own experience, when you come from one discipline and you get into another one, by the time you understand the questions, materials, and the approaches of the new one, you are still not like your colleagues in your new discipline. You understand it differently. So this is what I think is crucial: to always become bilingual rather than become native. And to do that you need to be confronted by the fact that, ‘Okay, this discipline is really not my discipline—yet—and I don’t understand what people are talking about’.


HYK: Let’s transpose your trajectory to the question of collaboration. People have argued that there is a current toward collaboration in human and social sciences, especially interdisciplinary collaboration. What do you think of that? Because this conception seems quite profoundly different from what you have done. Your interdisciplinary work was based on the personal kind of ‘venturing out’ rather than planned large-scale collaborations as in physics, etc. Is this something which you see more often these days, or is this something which you feel bewildered by?

MB: Let me give you a good and bad example of what I see in social sciences and humanities. In the past, the kind of cross-disciplinary collaborations that I have been part of were really based on shared problems. In my case, it was scientific authorship. I am not a scientist, but there are a lot of scientists and editors of scientific journals who are trying to come up with definitions of scientific authorship, and they found the perspectives and knowledge of people who have thought about authorship from other disciplines and periods to be very valuable. Immediately and not with a lot of effort, you can find yourself involved in teams, task forces, etc., who are not writing up policy reports, but who say, ‘Okay, we have to decide how to define authorship’. I thought that was really exciting because it was not like a coffee table or dinner conversation, having fun and talking about ‘how different our works are and yet we have common shared interests’. I mean, that’s pleasurable, but that’s not what I mean by collaboration. So there was a problem, and different people were tackling it.

To give you another example of good collaboration: now at UC Davis, together with a colleague from biology and the head librarian, we have a large project to study the future of academic publications, in which notions of authorship, open access, and misconduct are examined … And again there is a problem that we hope to solve—or at least take some directions towards articulating something hopefully relevant and useful. That is what I mean by good collaboration: collaboration around a problem, and not just about a problem, but a specific problem.

I am sure that many different people in different places can come up with those kinds of collaborations. I just presented these two as autobiographical examples.

But what I see a lot in social sciences and humanities, especially in the U.S. (I don’t know enough about the U.K.’s current state), is that the trend to collaborate is in effect a scaling-down. For instance, the narrative of such collaboration goes: ‘The anthropologists seem to share a lot of concerns with sociologists and cultural studies people, okay, let’s put them in the same department’. Or: ‘Let’s start a department of postcolonial studies, but we are not going to hire anybody. We are just going to pick somebody from anthropology, someone from ethnic studies, somebody from the English department’. Effectively, something that is presented as a collaborative new cluster, program, or departments is, in fact, a product of the university’s attempt to create an effect of educational diversity along the line of ‘We offer more programs’. But actually the programs are just the results of a reshuffling of people who are already on campus and it is not clear that there is a real field there, except for this product, the program or department. It is in effect creating the ‘new’ without any additional resource, or using cross-disciplinarity as a way to justify the coming together and downsizing of previous departments and programs into more generic ones. This is a move towards genericness which is the opposite of the attempt to identify problems that are specific.

Perhaps there could be a way of distinguishing these two kinds of collaboration. In some cases, the interesting collaborations are not just about problems but specific problems. And instead now I see a trend towards genericness: you just cobble up people doing different things and say, ‘Voila!’

[…] Suppose that there is an anthropologist and a patent lawyer who work on notions of property, etc., who get to a point of recognition that each’s notion of property is strange to the other. Then it is most likely that one would push the other: ‘What exactly do you mean by intellectual?’ or, ‘What the hell do you mean that property is culturally specific?’ and so on. If we have to stay focused on an issue, there would not be any dilution of analytic rigour, but actually we might end up sharpening each other’s thinking precisely through this mutual request for clarification. But that’s profoundly different from going to a conference and hearing a bunch of different papers which are interesting because they expand your repertoire, but there is no challenge at the end.

But one thing which really concerns me is that cross-disciplinary collaborations are in fact only attempts to do product differentiations by universities. They are ways to create new products.

Networks and Impresarios

HYK: Do you think that this trend also seeps down to the level of individual researchers who seek to engage in a kind of brand differentiation by labeling themselves, for example, trans-this, trans-that, or cross-this or that, and say that they are in a conversation with some others? Some of those kinds of conversations seem to lack any substantial analytical engagements, discussions, and especially divergences and disagreements, which critical but constructive conversations can bring. Some seem to be rather engaged in what you called product proliferations, such as networks and blogs, which in effect only accumulate opinions, in the sense of a list. I am not sure whether some of the cross- or transdisciplinary networks and their members are epistemologically capable of talking to each other.

MB: I understand what you are saying. Maybe it could be interesting to break down the scenario and think about what different actors would or would not gain by that. Put yourself into the position of a postgraduate student. He or she may be the student of a superficial but very well-connected mentor. This person may not be exactly an intellectual person to reckon with—he or she may not teach you how to think, etc.—but this person could connect you to very vast networks, not just for the sake of patronage, but he or she may be able to expose you to different conversations that you may not be able to have unless you are working with a person like him or her. So it could be that a superficial academic and impresario who spends most of her or his time networking may actually be a good mentor. From the point of view of a university, certainly, active networking people are a plus. Which might enable the university, if it has smart administrators to say, ‘Look, we might then be able to transfer some of the attention that we are getting from these projects to support other, more high-risk things’. If we try to put these things in a broader, for a lack of a better term, market, you might identify some interesting spillovers and effects, although both of us might find that collaboration vacuous. That goes back to the question about what is interesting: there are many ways to define this term.

HYK: I think I agree with you but I am worried that the benefits of networking are taken at face value for what it is rather than benefitting the people who are actually doing the groundwork of careful analysis and thinking, which provides the contents for networks.

MB: Again, I am trying to look at the nuts and bolts, because I don’t think that I can answer your real question. An example, and let’s call them ‘impresarios’: these impresarios may have a function in the sense that they bring together serious people who would have the energy to write out these stupid grant proposals, etc. In the sense of the pursuit of the personal interest of impresarios, they play a function. This became very clear to me when I was studying early modern patronage. There you would have these kind of talent scouts that in the process of representing themselves as the experts—like the prince’s advisor on art—they say, ‘I have the right person for you’. But as a result, they would support and push talent. In a sense there are many different author functions in collaborations, even of those different kinds you are talking about.

Authorship in Collaborations

HYK: I think this is a great way of thinking about authorship within these different forms of collaboration. When we think about cross-disciplinary collaborations, how would you identify authorship in these constellations? Perhaps we could think about it in terms of curatorship: there are the different artists and they are put together into one exhibition which might be conceptually organized around a theme. Or do we still retain the individual authorship function to the individual work?

MB: Yes. But that also depends on what the work is. For instance, I am also thinking that recently we see the same thing in art where the curator sometimes becomes the author, but that does not mean that the artist is not an author as a result. So the curator is the author of the exhibit, and maybe even be the editor of the catalogue, but the artists remain the authors of their contribution to the exhibit and/or the catalogue. The notion of the editor is pretty flexible—and by editor I mean the editor of books, organizer of conferences, or curator of exhibits. I think it is a pretty capricious and interesting category. Some people say, ‘Yes, you should get some credit from the university for the grants you have gotten, for the conferences you have organized’, but that is a credit which is different from writing an article.

HYK: Which one is more valuable?

MB: Well, I know what I like and what I don’t like. For instance, for me, what is valuable is exclusively the juicy article or book. But. If you take more of a bird’s eye view, where we are part of the university but we are not the only players, like from the university’s point of view which also includes the students, it could be that there are just different author functions. And the specific evaluation of one specific author function against another? I would not be able to decide how to assess the relevance. But maybe we would need to.

When we think about specific collaborations leading to a publication as in the natural sciences, where they have really blown up the notion of the author, it could be interesting to do the same exercise when we think about the university. Or these collaborations that involve grant writing, conference organizing, editing conference proceedings, writing specific contributions, and so on. But this is more a sociological thing. Understanding how the whole machinery works does not mean that it delegitimizes your specific notion of interest. Again, to me what is more interesting in a collaboration is when you actually really have to work with somebody because there is a shared problem or puzzle that you want to crack. But I wouldn’t say that this is the gospel, or that it is the definition of interest. I feel strongly that this is my take on it.


HYK: I wanted to ask you about your ‘author as vegetable’ metaphor and also generally your use of metaphors. You also talked about pastures and the commons, which might be more familiar to more people. Your work contains a lot of metaphors, and I wonder whether this might perhaps be due to the fact that you think analogically about your subject matter, which allows for creative crossings. But at the same time, analogies are notoriously dangerous, and people in certain disciplines hate them because there is no way of verification.

MB: I am not sure I have much to say in the topic, but a couple of things that come up are, first of all, as you move across disciplines, different disciplines rely on more or less metaphors and analogies. For example, what is striking coming into law from the outside is the massive dependence on analogy. In contrast, in history, the tendency is always to put emphasis on specificity. As a historian, if you use a certain model that has been developed to describe northern Italian villages and you apply it to northern Spanish villages, people are likely to jump on you because they say, ‘No, no, no, everything is different!’ But in law, everything seems to be analogy driven. At the same time, you have certain images and metaphors which are absolutely fundamental to the discipline. Think about the computation metaphor in older artificial intelligence, in which the brain is understood as a kind of computer. And then, there is also a lot of critical work by Derrida and others who problematize and argue against metaphors and analogy by emphasizing difference. Intellectually I am much more interested in differences and specificities than analogies and metaphors. You can see that in my talk about commons and pastures, that these are not only an example of bad metaphors, but that they also show the problems of any kind of metaphor.

But then you say that I use them, too, as in my ‘Author as Vegetable’ piece. [Chuckles] It might sound banal but I thought it is a good title. [Laughs]


Hyo Yoon KANG is a Lecturer of Law at the University of Kent. Previously she was a Lecturer of Science Studies at the University of Lucerne and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. Her previous degrees were in law. She was a visiting research fellow at UC Berkeley and LSE. Hyo’s earlier research focused on conceptual and epistemic associations between law and science in the settings of human gene patents and patent classification. Her current work examines value in relation to intellectual property, focusing on various entanglements of scientific credit with patents and their increasing financialization.

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