Geography prof’s articles most cited and most read in world’s leading science and technology studies journal

Kean Birch
Kean Birch
Kean Birch

It’s a rare achievement to have the most cited or the most read article in an academic journal; having both at the same time with different papers is an almost unheard-of achievement in a discipline.

But that’s exactly what York University Professor Kean Birch has achieved. Birch is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and the current graduate program director of the Graduate Program in Science & Technology Studies (STS). In August, two of his papers were the most cited and the most read articles in the world’s leading science and technology studies journal, Science, Technology, & Human Values. Both papers are open access.

The most cited paper is a 2017 article titled “Rethinking Value in the Bio-economy: Finance, Assetization, and the Management of Value.” It draws on research funded by the York University Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies’ Minor Research Grant and outlines the new concept of “assetization” for understanding how things like scientific knowledge are transformed into capitalizable assets. Its groundbreaking nature is evident in the way its arguments have been taken up and cited across a range of social science disciplines, and from the fact that it has been downloaded more than 5,000 times to date.

In following up on this achievement, Birch and his collaborator Fabian Muniesa, a senior researcher at the École des Mines de Paris in France, have a new edited book coming out from MIT Press next year called Turning Things into Assets in which contributors analyze how knowledge, nature, infrastructure and social relations are all assetized. For example, York University Associate Professor James Williams from the Department of Social Science has a chapter in the book on social impact bonds.

The most read paper is a 2019 article titled “Technoscience Rent: Toward a Theory of Rentiership for Technoscientific Capitalism,” which has already been downloaded nearly 2,000 times since being published online in February of this year. It builds on the earlier 2017 paper by outlining a theory of “rentiership” for understanding the resurgence of monopolies and rent-seeking in contemporary, technoscientific capitalism. As such, it highlights the critical need to examine the relationship between technology and society.

The article represents the theoretical starting point for a $270,000 Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council Insight Grant that Birch received in 2018, and that he outlined in an invited lecture at a 2018 conference jointly organized by the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies and the Hamburg Institute for Social Research to mark the birthday of Karl Marx. See a video of his talk here.

Birch was pleasantly surprised by the two achievements. “I was keeping an eye on the downloads of my paper on rentiership to see how much interest there was in it, but I didn’t expect it to end up as the most read article in the journal,” he said. “It just shows how much interest there is in the relationship between technology and society.”