Power and Inequality in Open Science Discourses

Denisse Alejandra
6 min readNov 21, 2017

Presented by: Denisse Albornoz, OCSDNet, Knowledge GAP

These are my speaking notes for the presentation given at the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion panel of OpenCon 2017.

I will start our discussion by addressing issues of power and inequality in Open Science discourses, based on the research findings of the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network (OCSDNet). OCSDNet is an international research network that for the past three years has been working to understand if open science and/or open approaches to knowledge production contribute to sustainable development and wellbeing.

Open Science according to Global South grassroots communities

OCSDNet started its research back in 2014, when the concept of ‘Open Science’ was starting to get traction in North America and Europe. (Not because the concept was better understood in the Global North, but because the system is set up in such a way that knowledge produced in the North has more influence vis-a-vis knowledge produced in the rest of the world).

In response to this, OCSDNet was very intentional about partnering up with 12 research teams based in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, or the “Global South”, that were investigating how Open Science was defined and practiced in their regions, as well as its impact on development.

Distribution of OCSDNet 12 research teams

It is important to note that while some of these teams explored Open Science at the university level, most of them were working and co-producing knowledge with grassroots communities, including social movement activists, women in rural areas, indigenous communities, farmers, hackers, among others. (These communities are usually grouped into the category of “the general public” in Open Science policies, even though there is tremendous diversity between them).

Very soon, a pattern started emerging in the research, as teams across the network noted that the political, economic, social and cultural systemic barriers faced by their partner communities and preventing them from defining their development agenda, were also impacting the way in which they understood and practiced Open Science.

To communicate this to wider audiences, OCSDNet produced the Open and Collaborative Science Manifesto — a document that integrates the diverse worldviews, experiences, and challenges of these communities, and proposes seven values which ought to be at the foundation of a more inclusive and equitable practice of Open Science in service of a more participatory development.

Open and Collaborative Science Manifesto. Video produced by Cooperativa De Diseno

Gap between OCS Manifesto and Open Science Policies

However, once the document was made public, the contrast between its narrative and the values put forth by high-level Open Science policies only became more evident. To give a few examples, Open Science policies state that:

  • Open Science mainly concerns the following actors: “researchers, governments, research funding agencies and the scientific community” (OECD, 2015) — making rare to no mention of the interests of community-level actors.
  • OS focuses on making research available “on a digital format with no or minimal restriction” (OECD, 2015) using a language that promotes openness “everywhere and for everyone”.
  • OS focuses on maximizing research outputs and increasing their value at all stages of the research process (Dakar Declaration on Open Science in Africa, 2017) — focusing on incentivizing tools, technologies and infrastructures.
  • OS outputs can be “used to achieve a knowledge and innovation-based economy” (Mallorca Open Science, 2017), or in the case Europe, to “strengthen the global competitiveness of European research” (Liber Statement on Enabling Open Science, 2014)

This language focused on productivity, efficiency and competition raises red flags in terms of who is really being represented by these policies. Under the premise that no policy or discourse is ever neutral, we need to ask:

Slide 10 of DEI presentation — See full slides here

To help answer these questions and to think critically about Open Science policies from the perspective of grassroots communities, OCSDNet offers three alternative ways to think about Open Science:

1. Open Science is a historically produced discourse

To see open science as a historically produced discourse, we need to first abandon the notion that openness is always inherently positive and/or neutral. We then need to revise and contextualize openness within their particular historical legacies, contexts and and sociopolitical struggles.

For example, the research team working in Argentina promoting openness with social movements, found that activists were not willing to share information openly out of fear of persecution by the state or by other academics. Similarly, the research team working in South Africa along with indigenous communities, found that there was resistance to the idea of openness due to how indigenous knowledge had been misused, appropriated or exploited in the name of colonialism and neoliberalism.

For these teams, de-contextualizing openness from its history, meant erasing the experiences of vulnerable communities who had been harmed by it and ignoring unequal power structures in which openness had opened the door for further exploitation and power abuse.

For these reasons and borrowing from feminist scholarship, OCSDNet proposes the idea of situated openness — an openness that recognizes the context, history and power structures in which it operates, and that constantly interrogates whose histories and whose interests count?

2. Open Science as a practice of social transformation

Open Science needs to be aware of the social and political dimensions of knowledge and technology. We learned this from two groups that were working closely with tools and technologies that promote Open Science.

The group working in Indonesia, Thailand and Nepal, promoting low-cost technologies, found that openness was thought of as an everyday knowledge sharing practice that fostered community-building, rather than as a techno-led practice to connect small communities with “big science”. Similarly, in Brazil, the team building a virtual botanical data repository, found that you need to nurture the human and social networks surrounding infrastructures; that it is imperative to let the social drive the technology, rather than technology drive the social.

These ideas contrast with the market-oriented language used in Open Science policies that subordinates the social value of knowledge to its economic value as a resource that enhances market productivity and competition. More importantly, this focus also limits our ability to talk about distribution.

In the spirit of contextualizing openness, we must recognize that Open Science operates within the super structures of global capitalism, a model that has historically benefitted those with larger access to wealth and resources, than those in a more vulnerable position. As such, we must ask — who will reap the benefits of maximizing our research efficiency and productivity?

3. Open Science always asks who is being left behind

Finally, we must address the question of participation and agency in a context in which global knowledge production remains unequal and uneven.

OCSDNet found that an Open Science that recognizes the value of community-based forms of knowledge production can be a force for political and social empowerment, particularly for actors that face systemic discrimination due to gender, race, socioeconomic status, ability and others.

For example, in Colombia and Costa Rica, coffee-plantation farmers reclaimed the concept of Open Science to design local agro-ecology programs that integrated their traditional knowledge of agriculture, as well as their development philosophy of Buen Vivir.In Lebanon, it was women who showed up to learn about low-cost, DIY technologies to measure water contamination in rural areas, leveraging Open Science to position themselves as leaders of their communities and stewards of common resources.

When we ask who is being left out of the Open Science agenda? we are interrogating power, inequality and the barriers that prevent actors from having an influence over decisions that affect them. But more importantly, we are exercising self-awareness — recognizing that the gaps in the Open Science discourse can only be filled by the very same groups which are often excluded from the process of defining what it means.

To close…

As a community, we must continue to stay critical of discourses that normalize norms and ways of thinking that may be producing or reproducing local and global inequality. I hope these examples were useful to demonstrate the importance of turning to grassroots communities, civil society and vulnerable/historically marginalized groups, to understand the potential Open Science has for sustainable development and social transformation.