Arts & Sciences

One researcher’s artifact is another’s result

Talia Dan-Cohen, an anthropologist, and Carl Craver, a philosopher, dig into the meaning of data artifacts in scientific research. (Photo: WashU Arts & Sciences)

While conducting fieldwork at a lab at Princeton University, Talia Dan-Cohen, associate professor of sociocultural anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, observed a common but perplexing problem. For her book A Simpler Life: Synthetic Biological Experiments, Dan-Cohen was tracking the work of practitioners in the developing field of synthetic biology, and she noticed two researchers discussing the same peer review report again and again. For months, the scientists had a hard time convincing reviewers that what they saw as the big result of their work was actually a result at all rather than an artifact, or a flaw in the data caused by their equipment or technique.

For Dan-Cohen, the dispute pointed to larger questions: what is an artifact, anyways? When does an artifact become a result, or vice versa? Who gets to decide?

Dan-Cohen posed these questions to the philosophy of science reading group at WashU, thinking that surely an account already existed in a journal somewhere. She soon learned that despite being a common problem for every researcher who works with data, no standard definition could be found in the philosophy of science literature. With Carl F. Craver, PhD, professor of philosophy and philosophy-neuroscience-psychology, she set out to write a quick paper outlining a definition.

They would find the task much more challenging than they anticipated.

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