Coordination Team member, Becky Hillyer, interviews Leslie Chan, Principal Investigator of OCSDNet, about the current state of the network and his experience working in the field of Open Science and Open Access over the past twenty years.

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Interview Questions: 

  1. What is OCSDNet, in a nutshell?
  2. Why did you seek to initiate a network like this?
  3. What are some of the common themes that link the projects together?
  4. What are some of the challenges that project teams and the network as a whole have had to overcome, so far?
  5. Are governments, civil society and/or the public more receptive to the work done by networks like OCSDNet today than they were 20 years ago? How and why?
  6. Why is it important and timely to understand the connections between “open science” and “development?”
  7. Given the important linkages between Open Science and the potential implications for development, have these topics been addressed at all in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
  8. If someone would like to get involved with the work of the network, what opportunities exist?
  9. Could you tell us more about the ‘manifesto’ that the network is hoping to create? Why is this important?

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1. What is OCSDNet, in a nutshell?

Well, in a nutshell, OCSDNet is a network of 12 research projects which span about 26 countries. The projects are led by teams located in Southern countries, and some projects have partner institutions in Northern countries. All projects are focused around one or more of four core themes, all of which seek to understand the barriers and opportunities for Open Science and its connections to development.

The project teams are quite unique, in that they are composed of researchers from diverse backgrounds – including natural scientists, social scientists, law practitioners, digital media enthusiasts, open hardware advocates, environmentalists and others. They use contextually relevant understandings of ‘openness’ to understand the local dynamics of how knowledge is created, shared and used by relevant audiences.

As a network, we encourage all teams to share project learnings in order to create broader understandings of how and why knowledge is framed and used, and by whom. We seek to understanding the implications of knowledge paradigms for development research and practice. In doing so, OCSDNet teams interrogate and deconstruct many power relations – including questions around who creates and accesses knowledge, and which forms of knowledge are considered ‘legitimate’ by elite actors and why.

2. You are currently the Principal Investigator of OCSDNet. Why did you seek to initiate a network like this?

I have a long-standing interest in Open Access in particular, particularly around how knowledge flows from one part of the world to the other. I have been campaigning for Open Access now for the past 20 years. All of this work has got me thinking about the power dynamics of knowledge production. Over time, it occurred to me that Open Access is really only just the beginning – you have access to the literature, but that’s not the end to research! It’s only the product.

So, it occurred to me that opening up the entire research process is important. Not just the literature, but the data collection process, methods, tools for collaborating; all of those should be a part of the knowledge production process.

When I saw that the IDRC had become interested in supporting openness in development, I was happy to put these ideas into practice and submit a proposal. In fact, they had been encouraging me to solicit ideas about how openness could become more integrated into their own funding models for quite a while now. But this is very much a pilot project. We want to see whether or not Open Science is in fact a positive opportunity for development, or whether it is just merely another way of recreating the status quo, while the same elite actors maintain the majority of power in knowledge production processes.

3. Many of the network projects seem to be quite diverse, with teams using different tools and methods to investigate a variety of research questions. What are some of the common themes that link the projects together?

We recognised, from the beginning, that we would have a variety of types of submissions. So we set up a framework with a set of key themes – including motivations for the research, institutional frameworks, etc. We wanted to look at some of the specific outcomes and impacts of different Open Science practices, both positive and negative.

All of the projects needed to identify the particular themes that they wanted to work on, and how that would relate to the overall framework for the network; which is, in a nutshell, that knowledge should be a form of common good. As such, all of the teams are interested in ways that knowledge can be used and sustained in a common way. This is the key linkage between all of the projects. And with this linkage at its core, we encourage the projects to approach open science in a way that they feel is appropriate to their specific context.

For instance, one of our research teams in Lebanon is working with citizens to gather and map scientific data about pollution. They have quite a ‘traditional’ approach to science in terms of their data collection methods, analysis etc… And so, that may be a project that is more recognisable to someone from an environmental science background, even though there is a strong citizen science component embedded into the project.

And the social science teams, their approach to research is obviously different. They have more of a critical theory approach. They often do text analysis, they have certain interview techniques and research methods that are more qualitative in nature. Another example is that we have researchers looking at open hardware initiatives in Indonesia. They are trying to examine the behaviour of workshop participants using particular observation approaches. We also have a team looking at intellectual property rights and commercialisation in Kenya, and how these growing trends could potentially interact with an open science agenda. They are seeking to understand existing policy frameworks – so they have a type of case study approach, from a policy standpoint.

What we are seeing are some emerging, common interests from many of the projects. For instance, the notion of ‘citizen science,’ which values strong participation from average citizens of local communities.  This is a common theme, or approach… in Lebanon, in Kyrgyzstan…  It is important to include local people not only for data collection purposes, but also to encourage recognition of the importance of environmental impact and climate change, and to understand what local knowledge is already being used to address some of these core questions.

4. What are some of the challenges that project teams and the network as a whole have had to overcome, so far?

Many of the project teams are comprised of partners from different regions and backgrounds. Therefore, some of these projects are new in terms of the project and methods, but also in regards to the collaborators with whom they are working. Collaboration is great, in principle… but working together in practice can be challenging due to different cultures, institutional practices, differences in disciplinary training, language. These all play into being able to communicate effectively as a team. Some of the teams have more experience doing this than others.

For instance, we find in Latin America, there is quite a strong culture of collaboration. Many researchers share the same language, and often there is institutional recognition for Open Science and Open Access. However, in other regions, we have noticed some degree of tension in this regard. But all of these things are very much a part of what we want to understand, as a network. Documenting all of these tensions and understanding them is important. Collaboration is not easy!

Another challenge is the language dimension. At the moment, no one from the network coordination team speaks fluent French, and we have quite a large project team working in several French-Speaking African countries. So, there are communication gaps, for sure. We also have several Spanish-speaking people in network, and fortunately we do have a Spanish speaker on the coordination team now. In trying to justify practices of ‘openness,’ we must also be careful and cognisant of the dominance of the english language and about placing pressure on non-native English speakers on the team. There are a lot of power dimensions with language as well. In fact, in many cases, research teams are finding that the vocabulary of ‘open science’ in english does not always translate well within their respective contexts. Many of them are having to invent new vocabularies when interacting with local communities.

5. You have a long trajectory of championing the open science movement in Canada and abroad. Are governments, civil society and/or the public more receptive to the work done by networks like OCSDNet today than they were 20 years ago? How and why?

Ten years ago, if you mentioned the word ‘open science,’ most people wouldn’t know what you were talking about. But today, most academics will have at least heard of it. Whether they understand it or not is another question. I’d say there is a lot of misunderstanding. But it’s no longer a ‘strange’ term. It’s debated publicly.

One of the most common misunderstandings is around these new, bogus Open Access journals that are taking advantage of authors, who have to pay a fee to have their work published. But that aside, there are still many academics who are tied to the idea of ‘prestige’ and the ‘brand power’ of particular journals. They are content with the status quo because they feel that traditional journals are working with their own purposes…Even though other young and emerging authors and scholars are being left out of these systems, including many promising researchers located in Southern countries.

In terms of other changes…there has been some at the government level. Today, all of the major research intensive countries (OECD countries) now have OA policies in regards to the research that they fund. Earlier this year, for example, three major research funders in Canada have agreed to make their publications Open Access, no later than twelve months after publication. This is an important step in the right direction. People are beginning to understand that OS allows researchers to maximize the scope and usage of their research. And that’s ultimately about what research funding is about: finding social purposes.

6. Why is it important and timely to understand the connections between “open science” and “development?”

Going back to the question of research and research findings, one of the purposes of research is to understand the issues of people who are being affected by particular factors. Take for instance: understanding why and how farmers are impacted by climate change. Those farmers should be able to access that research. But currently, that research is not accessible because it is generally locked away in journal articles that are very expensive. Therefore, many groups and individuals who need access to this knowledge the most are being excluded from it.  And indeed, much of that knowledge is being extracted from communities and exported to the Global North. Therefore, opening up scientific research processes is intrinsically connected to the field of development.

Another thing – until recently – many major science and development projects have been limited to the Global North. (for instance – the creation of GM food, large infrastructure projects, etc..). Most of these project have been top-down in nature and have not really sought to engage with issues or ideas emanating from local communities. So for us, we feel that open science should be driven by locally relevant research questions and agendas. If science could work with local communities to understand what they need, and involve those communities in taking part in the research… to us, that would be key to linking science and development. That would be good science and good development.

7. Given the important linkages between Open Science and the potential implications for development, have these topics been addressed at all in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Science is not specifically addressed as a vehicle towards achieving the SDGs. However, because many of these goals are so broad, this allows us to perhaps insert something about “openness” and participation, which could help to ensure that these goals could be better achieved. For example – one of the goals has to do with building sustainable infrastructure. Most people might think of this as bridges, roads… etc.. which is true. But increasingly, due to the importance of networks in knowledge production, connectivity, including sustainable e-infrastructure, should be essential considerations of any development planning. So by advocating the importance of science and development, we also need to remind policymakers that in order for these linkages to be realised, you need to have the necessary infrastructure: the network, the tools, the human capacity. So building these capacities, training a new generation of people – this is part of achieving these goals. And these tools really need to be locally relevant, taking into the needs of local communities.

(Click here to view an online webinar by Leslie Chan, on the topic of Open Science and potential connections with the SDGs.)

8. If someone would like to get involved with the work of the network, what opportunities exist?

Our network is still quite young – only 1.5 years into the process. And many of the projects are only six months in. So we are still in the process of forming and understanding our network and projects, while trying to define the boundaries of the field of open science. So,  we welcome any like-minded individuals, organisations or initiatives that share our common principle to join us, think with us, challenge us. Are we being naive? Realistic? Are we overlooking obvious, fundamental things that we should be considering? By engaging with our projects, we are already connecting with many local initiatives that we didn’t know about previously. We are very excited to be learning about the various actors and initiatives working at the forefront of open science and development and will try to map out and connect with many of these initiatives.

At the very minimum, anyone who is interested can subscribe to our external newsletter, by adding your email address to the main page of our website (lower, left-hand corner). You can also join us for some of our events. In February, we will be hosting a public forum in Bangkok, so you will be welcomed to attend that. In the very near future, we will also be developing a “Manifesto” for the network, and we would like to get as much external input as possible for that.

9. Could you tell us more about the ‘manifesto’ that the network is hoping to create? Why is this important?

Yes, we are hoping to draft a manifesto around the principles and ideas that are guiding the work of the network. And again, this is meant to be a work in progress. So people can read this document, and debate about it…And we can share common dialogue about what Open Science really means, and what the implications are for the field of development.

Any other questions for Leslie or the network? Email them to [email protected] or Tweet us @OCSDNet.