Background: Bioinformatics has multitudinous identities, organisational alignments and disciplinary links. This variety allows bioinformaticians and bioinformatic work to contribute to much (if not most) of life science research in profound ways. The multitude of bioinformatic work also translates into a multitude of credit-distribution arrangements, apparently dismissing that work.
Results: We report on the epistemic and social arrangements that characterise the relationship between bioinformatics and life science. We describe, in sociological terms, the character, power and future of bioinformatic work. The character of bioinformatic work is such that its cultural, institutional and technical structures allow for it to be black-boxed easily. The result is that bioinformatic expertise and contributions travel easily and quickly, yet remain largely uncredited. The power of bioinformatic work is shaped by its dependency on life science work, which combined with the black-boxed character of bioinformatic expertise further contributes to situating bioinformatics on the periphery of the life sciences. Finally, the imagined futures of bioinformatic work suggest that bioinformatics will become ever more indispensable without necessarily becoming more visible, forcing bioinformaticians into difficult professional and career choices.
Conclusions: Bioinformatic expertise and labour is epistemically central but often institutionally peripheral. In part, this is a result of the ways in which the character, power distribution and potential futures of bioinformatics are constituted. However, alternative paths can be imagined.