By: Becky Hillyer


      • This blog summarises some of the challenges for open and collaborative science in development, based on feedback from OCSDNet project teams


      • Some of these challenges include: navigating institutional ethics and power relations, a lack of buy-in from traditional scientists, the challenge of openness within a neoliberal system, navigating the local politics of ‘openness,’ effective engagement with diverse stakeholders, and working with diverse research teams.


      • This blog is Part 1 of a series of blogs that will seek to report some of the emerging findings, best practice and impacts of OCSDNet, one year in to the work of the network.


Uncovering the challenges of Open Science in Development


In conceptualizing the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network two years ago, we recognised that there are important opportunities for the practices and principles of open science to connect to development thinking and practice. We wanted to understand what those opportunities are, and indeed what the challenges and barriers are that might prevent positive development.

Now, approximately one year after the launch of twelve international projects within OCSDNet, our diverse team of researchers and coordinators have begun to understand just what some of those challenges have come to entail. And, going further, a series of best practices around overcoming key challenges have also begun to emerge.

In this blog, we highlight a number of emerging challenges for open and collaborative science in development, with specific examples from many OCSDNet project teams.

1. Institutional power relations as a barrier to ethical, open collaboration

Global power structures around knowledge creation and legitimation continue to favour Northern researchers and institutions. Within OCSDNet, this was seen particularly clearly through one project, based in Africa, which has links to an American university. In this case, there was a significant issue with the process of receiving ethical clearance to conduct research on ‘openness’ with indigenous communities due to bureaucratic ethics requirements within the American institution. Despite attempts by both the American researcher and African partners to facilitate a transparent and reflexive ethics process driven by the local community, the university was adamant about having pre-approved informed consent letters, research agenda, etc. In this way, the American institution asserted itself as the “standard of excellence” for research practice, even though the team felt that those methods were inappropriate (and actually counter-productive) to the local context and specific research goals.

From this example, we learn that in order to facilitate high-quality open science research programs, it may be necessary for institutions to have a more nuanced policy structure for interpreting, advising and facilitating ethical processes, ensuring participant privacy and allowing researcher flexibility. This is particularly important for Northern institutions that strive to generate partnerships with research institutions in the Global South. Indeed, without an awareness of the existing power structures which prioritise certain forms of knowledge and research over others, it becomes quite challenging to facilitate high-quality North-South research partnerships based on principles of openness and collaboration. Nevertheless, institutions with top-down and bureaucratic structures for governing research processes may also present important opportunities for open scientists to engage in critical dialogue with university policy-makers, around how these structures can be best adapted towards building effective partnerships based on open and collaborative ways of working.

2. Varied buy-in from scientific community, depending on local culture of ‘openness’ and collaboration

One of the most common challenges that has arisen over and over again amongst various projects is the fact that many individuals (particularly the existing scientific community) have been enculturated with the idea that science can only be done by scientists and that “doing science” is an endeavour which requires expensive equipment and a professional laboratory. For this reason, some OCSDNet sub-projects, despite attempts to collaborate with other groups studying similar themes in their respective contexts, are often dismissed due to the nature of mainstream understandings of science and consequent modes of data collection. For instance, one project team leader in Central Asia explains:

“It is difficult to find local scientists who are interested in participating…Many people laugh, they don’t think the project is important – they think that having a cheap, simple way of collecting data is not appropriate. They have this idea that science must involve huge infrastructure and investment.”

Similarly, one of the OCSDNet teams in Africa acknowledged the difficulties of convincing academic colleagues about the merits of open science, despite these very individuals being implicated in the adverse effects of limited access to knowledge:

“The local conservatism of university life in Haiti and Africa is hard to beat. Our co-researchers are usually very enthusiastic about open and collaborative science. However, they are worried that their colleagues and universities will be conservative and apathetic, which is sometimes true.”

On the other hand, teams in South America have often reported an entirely different reaction from scientists and researchers after explaining concepts of open science and its relationship to development. For instance, during an Open Science workshop in Colombia, the OCSDNet PI gave an overview of Open Science and the work of the network. Following this seminar, many members of the audience were very excited about the concept of ‘Open Science,’ reporting that they had mostly been doing it already, but had never considered the power dimensions of knowledge creation and sharing.

With these examples in mind, there is a need for critical discussion and reflection with the scientific community – particularly emerging scholars and early-career researchers – around what open science means or could mean for local scientific communities and how it could be useful to achieve local development questions and challenges.

3. The difficulty of open science, within neoliberal systems that see knowledge as a commodity and promote competitiveness for “scarce” resources

Interestingly, in one OCSDNet project in Brazil, one of the positive (albeit unintended) outcomes to emerge from the project is the creation of a tightly-knit working group of botanists, all of whom have joined together to ‘open up’ their data via a collective virtual herbarium. Despite the importance of these connections towards the collective growth in visibility of all data, last month the group was shocked when one of its largest member institutions decided to withdraw its open data from the network, reverting back to a closed-access setting.

This partner clearly justified their actions as follows: Due to the increased visibility of data produced by smaller herbariums that arose from involvement in the network, the result was that larger, traditionally more visible institutions were beginning to become ‘less visible.’ Ultimately then, within a competitive, capitalist system where knowledge is both power and money, it is difficult for those with a dominant claim to knowledge, power and money, to see smaller (and traditionally less competitive) institutions grow in importance as access to knowledge becomes more open and accessible.

Thus, from this example we have learned two things. Firstly, there is a significant challenge for open science to successfully exist and prevail in a system which continues to prioritise competition. This implies, then, that in order for open science to present clear opportunities for positive development, there is a need for open science actors to work with policy makers to ensure that there is a system and culture in place to support and achieve their goals. Secondly, along the same lines, it is important to understand what, if any, benefits will arise for traditionally powerful actors to participate in a system that values openness and collaboration above closure and competitiveness. Indeed, without buy-in from those actors with sway on knowledge discourse, it will be difficult to create systemic change to allow for the continued growth of open science in development. It is key to change the use of language and ideas about the values and benefits of knowledge as a public good instead of knowledge as commodity for economic gain only. This aspect is a key component of the Open Science Manifesto that OCSDNet is developing (see below for more details).

4. Learning to navigate the local politics around ‘openness’

As seen in the example above, the ‘opening’ of knowledge production and access is often a threat to those actors who have become accustomed to having a significant stake in controlling these processes. For these reasons then, the role of an open scientist goes beyond merely the research question and agenda at hand. Indeed, a true open scientist must be prepared for the politics of openness that will inevitably ensue for anyone attempting to challenge the status quo. For example, one OCSDNet project in Argentina is currently seeking to understand the health impact of agricultural pesticides on a local communities, with the assumption that the collection and opening of data around health and environmental implications will allow for increased public knowledge around food production and public health:

“The project is a very political case, very contested. It has a strong connection with social movements related to sustainability and environment. What this group is doing is going against the national policy of agricultural production. A lot of groups are not happy with people doing this research. We realize that the cases involve more moral politics than we thought it would.”

Given these political stakes and the challenges that arise as researchers try to build trust with key informants, this group has had to take a highly strategic and reflective approach towards how they engage with particular actors:
“The main shift in the project was developing a strategy to engage with [groups involved in the social movement] and try to accommodate our academic goals in relation to the political goals that these groups have. That’s an accommodation that we are still doing. In the case of the agro-ecology project – these are very mobilized groups. It is a lot of work to get their approval and earn their trust, and so we have to develop a strategy to deal with that.”

In this way then, many open scientists (and particularly those working on development issues with political implications) must be prepared to deal with a range of issues that a traditional definition and understanding of science may not encompass, such as some of the added risks that openness entails. Thus, researchers and practitioners of open science in development must be multidisciplinary and consistently reflexive in their to approach to research, science and development.

5. Engaging diverse stakeholders effectively

Given the understanding, so far, that we must challenge traditional notions of science and that actors involved in open science in development must be prepared for dealing with the politics of openness, this also gives rise to a challenge of communication and collaboration. Given the importance of engaging diverse actors for full understandings of science and developmental questions and challenges, what can or should be done to engage these diverse actors effectively?

Despite the potential benefits that can come from merging groups and individuals of diverse disciplinary backgrounds and knowledge groupings, barriers remain around how to effectively communicate complex concepts and ideas, as well as to ensure that all actors are driven to achieve the same goals. For instance, one OCSDnet project team leader in South America revealed that she had to fulfill the challenging role of mediating a successful collaboration process between data engineers and botanists, in order to develop cohesive scientific policies with which both groups would be happy.

In a similar vein, another OCSDNet project in Lebanon seeks to engage and integrate interested ‘citizen scientists,’ using participatory methods, to use technical laboratory equipment. In doing so, they are gaining valuable local knowledge and insight around environmental issues, while providing educational opportunities for local citizens to learn more about environmental issues in their area, as well as re-defining traditional understandings around who a scientist is. On the other hand, the team must grapple with the consistent challenge of communicating complex ideas to a relatively untrained group of citizens who are unpaid and volunteering their time to the project:

“The challenge is the design of the whole procedure. What are we going to say? How are we going to act?…Taking sophisticated concepts and making them simple and accessible and reachable: That’s the challenge. It’s not a regular citizen science project. We are actually going there and transforming their hall into a lab all of a sudden. That’s not easy. You need to simplify why you are doing, what we are doing, why we need these instruments. How will they benefit? Simplifying the experiment is a challenge and making the manuals (accessible) was a challenge.”

Thus, a researcher and practitioner working in open science in development has the challenge of communicating research to a diverse audience and contributors. Oftentimes this goes beyond communicating merely the findings of a project, but actually explaining each piece of the project to relevant contributors and co-researchers who may not have a trained, academic background.

6. Working ‘openly’ as a team, despite embedded power relations and different institutional backgrounds

As discussed, within the current, dominant system of knowledge creation and access, it is generally “Northern” knowledge which sets the bar in terms of knowledge and discourse that is seen as most legitimate. Within OCSDNet, we value the importance of people of diverse backgrounds, worldviews and disciplines coming together. However, despite the fact that the network approach inherently seeks to minimize power imbalances amongst ‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ researchers and institutions, it would be naive to think that this is a seamless process that merely requires the best intentions of all members. Instead, working together as a diverse and global team, remotely, across different time zones, balancing different institutional pressures and contextual backgrounds demands a process of constant reflection and evaluation on one’s own ways of working and of understanding the world. For instance, on reflecting on project challenges during a monthly report, one team expressed:

“[Communication]…requires the fostering of trust, clear understanding of responsibilities, and alignment of principles and values among team members. Often this mean creating strong habits as a team to ‘check-in’ physically and mentally to the project “space” regularly.”

Similarly, the OCSDNet Coordination Team has learned a lot in this regard. Acknowledging the development of the network and its ambitious goals as a learning endeavor for all of us, we continuously strive to collect feedback from project teams on how well we are supporting our projects. While we have received a lot of positive feedback from project teams, we recognise that there are always gaps that can be filled. For instance, we have recently held one-on-one interviews with all project teams, with the goal of gaining their feedback on ways that the network can be improved and how the coordination team could better support projects. This process revealed a number of strengths and weaknesses of our practices (many of which are easily solvable), which we would be otherwise unaware. For instance, during a monthly report, one team commented:

“Our research team does not feel fully involved in the network. We just receive a newsletter but are not able to exchange information among the network participants. We think the communication is highly mediated by the network coordinators, it is organized in a very hierarchical way. The mailing list is still the most direct way of communication among ourselves, but only our project coordinator is included in it.”

Indeed, in trying to develop a burgeoning space for cross-cultural collaboration amongst diverse research teams to understand ‘open science in development,’ we lost sight of our own power as a coordination team, and how this reflects to the project teams. However, by creating monitoring and evaluation tools that strive to create transparency and allow for constant feedback from project teams, this is now something that we are seeking to adjust, for more communication and collaboration amongst project teams themselves.

Concluding remarks

Within OCSDNet, we are consistently trying to take a reflexive approach to research and learning. This entails a double-loop process of critically considering what we are learning, why it is important, and how we can modify our own practices based on this new information.

As such, this blog has summarised some of the core, arising challenges for open and collaborative science in development as experienced by twelve international research projects in the network. Stay tuned for our next blog, which will highlight some of the emerging best practices from research teams, in terms of moving towards more effective opportunities for merging open science and development agendas.