Reimagining Open Science Through a Feminist Lens

Presented by: Denisse Albornoz, OCSDNet, Hiperderecho

These are my speaking notes for the presentation given at the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion panel of OpenCon 2018 in Toronto. Special thanks to Angela Okune and Leslie Chan for reviewing this script; and to everyone who participated in the June 2018 OCSDNet workshop for doing all the ‘re-imagining’.

Link to the slides:

Today I will talk about what it could mean to reimagine open science from a feminist perspective — a question we have been exploring at OCSDNet over the past few months. What I will share is still a work in progress - but we decided to share it in the spirit of openness and hoping to get your reactions and feedback.

In case you are not familiar with OCSDNet, it stands for Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network. We are an IRDC and DFID funded research network composed of scientists, development practitioners and community activists from 26 countries in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. For two years, the network investigated how and whether an open approach to science could contribute to sustainable development across a variety of social, economic and political contexts, with an emphasis on experiences emerging from the Global South.

A critical approach to open science

Since its inception, OCSDNet took a very critical stance towards Open Science. Our position was that much of the Open Science discourse, particularly at the policy-making and institutional level, frame open science as a technology-enabled means to produce more productive, efficient and competitive science. One of the main critiques we put forth was that this framing was biased in favor of a very utilitarian conception of science that incentivizes knowledge production for the sake of innovation and international competitiveness, while losing sight of other equally important functions served by research — such as attending to social challenges or equipping citizens to access their fundamental rights.

To address this critique and searching for an alternative, OCSDNet members turned to community-based, bottom-up understandings and practices of open and collaborative science. The research teams partnered up with community actors who are not considered under the category of formal “knowledge producers” or “scientists” (and who as a result, have been historically excluded from formal research processes) such as indigenous groups like the San from South Africa, farmers from Colombia and Costa Rica, and women from rural areas in Lebanon, among others — and explored in what ways open science could contribute to their wellbeing.

See Improving Adaptive Capacity with OCS and Participatory Governance Project (Colombia and Costa Rica) Read the full article here.
See Can Open Science Meet Social Needs? Project (Argentina) Read the full article here
See Local Conservation and Development with OCS Project (Lebanon). Read the full article here

The network’s hypothesis was that an open approach to science could potentially facilitate the equitable participation of these actors in formal research processes, and in this way, integrate their knowledge in policy making and development agendas. However, to our surprise, for many of these communities, participating in “open practices” was not always appealing or desirable. In the case of indigenous communities in South Africa, openness was associated with colonial expropriation of land and knowledge. In the case of rural children and teachers in Kyrgyzstan, open practices were taken up with fear and suspicion due to the country’s history of authoritarianism. And in the case of Argentina, social movement activists preferred to protect their information rather than open it due to fear of political persecution.

Based on these and other case studies OCSDNet built the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Manifesto, a document that lays out seven values that ought to be at the core of a more inclusive science and that, among other findings, offer the following ideas:

First, that openness is never universally positive or neutral. Building on the feminist concept of situated knowledge, OCSDNet members Laura Foster and Cath Traynor proposed situated openness: the idea that openness is situated at the intersections of interlocking systems of privilege and oppression -which may include white supremacy, capitalism, settler colonialism, patriarchy, and others- that determine at the structural level who will benefit and who is at risk in an open system.

And second, that openness is a mechanism to mobilize power. While open systems can, in some cases be used to disrupt power structures, they can also be used to strengthen them; especially when openness replicates the same incentives or practices that have historically been used to exclude certain actors from formal research processes. In this sense, we must constantly interrogate whose interests openness is serving and whose is it neglecting and stay vigilant of the ways in which openness may amplify or bridge power asymmetries.

Is situating openness enough?

While these findings allowed us to stay critical of open science, we realized that “situating openness” is only the first step. The next step needs to be to imagine and design inclusive infrastructures, practices, and workflows for scientific practice that intentionally enable meaningful participation and redress these new forms of exclusion. But how do we build such systems? Where do we get started?

Today I’d like to briefly offer three conceptual tools drawn from feminist STS scholarship [see references] that were discussed in the OCSDNet workshop in June 2018 to reflect on what might be involved in building a research system that is more open, but mostly, more inclusive and safe for social actors and grassroots communities.

1. Open science as a strategy for risk and harm reduction

A more inclusive open project needs to go beyond the question of who is participating to ask, in what ways? What are participants gaining and what are they risking in this process? Are their well-being and safety affected by the practices facilitated by this project?

In this sense, harm reduction strategies, explored in feminist anti-violence work, are immensely helpful. Besides from helping us identify the potential harms and risks that can result from an activity; reimagining it from a perspective of “harm reduction” leads us to design practices and services that reduce the vulnerability and increase the safety of who are being affected. This was the approach taken by the OCSDNet partner, the NGO Natural Justice from South Africa.

See full article here

Natural Justice sought to address how uncritical and unrestricted open knowledge sharing can create new risks and harms for the San population in South Africa. In collaboration with San indigenous researchers, they developed a Guide to Protect and Promote Indigenous Peoples Rights in Academic Research Processes, as well as community-research contracts designed to identify and reduce risks and harms experienced in past unequitable collaborations with academic researchers.

2. Open science as the practice of expressing informed consent and refusal

Building open research projects involves recognizing there are different expectations, motivations, and needs involved in knowledge-based exchanges and collaborations. While one researcher may see in openness a more transparent way of doing science, a trans-rights activist might see the careful negotiation of gaining visibility while protecting their own personal safety and that of their communities. Open as a default is not always the answer.

In that sense, consent: the ability to make informed and conscious decisions; to give permission or express refusal regarding our digital bodies, is essential to safe open practices. Discussions about consent involving our physical bodies have gained traction in the mainstream, but what happens when our bodies and identities exist in the form of data, images or text? How do the interactions we facilitate and the technologies we use in open projects enable the conscious and explicit signaling of permission or refusal?

See Virtual Herbarium as OCS Infrastructure Project (Brazil)

With similar concepts in mind, an OCSDNet project based in Brazil developed a formal but flexible system data repository that enabled community partner data providers to open or “hide” different types of data, rather than an all-or-nothing deal. As explored by many feminist STS scholars, consent should not just be a one-time thing that is “obtained” but something that is continually revisited in the diverse decisions made throughout the research cycle or projects.

3. Open science as a process to address our non-innocence and responsibility

Finally, we must also assess our own position within systems of privilege and oppression and consider how we are implicated in and contribute to uneven power dynamics, regardless of how good our intentions may be. Community-researcher relationships are never purely ‘innocent’ and “neutral”, especially where privilege and conflicting agendas create complex working terrains for research and knowledge sharing.

Addressing our “non-innocence” involves recognizing how our inherent biases can easily transfer into the open projects we design. It also involves abandoning a paternalistic view of those “vulnerable populations” we seek to include via openness, that homogenizes their existence as only defined by their experiences of exclusion, violence, domination and nothing else. The systems that structure our lives allow us to simultaneously hold privilege and experience oppression. In that sense, every actor involved in an open collaboration must be afforded the same level of complexity and humanity.

For that reason, strategies that address non-innocence are mostly about embracing our responsibility to proactively negotiate power, difference, and conflict in our research relationships, as well as finding and strengthening common interests with our collaborators. There is no easy way of doing this, and I cannot offer a practical example for this idea, but I’d like to share the words of Anne Clino, an OCSDNet member from Brazil who captured the essence of this process:

“We think science is a very ‘clean’ activity but to work with [diverse] communities is to really focus on the messiness, and to recognize that we are also part of this mess”

Towards Inclusive Infrastructures

I really believe that as open researchers, activists, and advocates we can play a pivotal role in re-shaping the values of openness beyond what is prescribed in mainstream policy and academic discourses, and in this way build an open science that is not only about technology and infrastructures but about relationships and people. However, in order to do that, we have a duty to constantly challenge ourselves with new ideas. Today I shared concepts drawn from feminist scholarship, but there is still much to learn from decolonizing theories, indigenous scholars, critical pedagogy practitioners and community activists that have deeply explored the intersections of knowledge and power.

For us at OCSDNet, reimagining open science from a feminist perspective has been an incredibly useful starting point to think about how diverse forms of power are embedded in the relationships and infrastructures we rely on to practice open science, and whether they are procuring -or not- the safety and wellbeing of those who sit at the intersections of several systems of oppression.

Building on these ideas, we have arrived at a first working definition of what a more inclusive, open infrastructure could look like:

“Inclusive infrastructure refer to tools, platforms, relationships, networks and other socio-technical mechanisms that deliberately allow for multiple forms of participation amongst a diverse set of actors, and which purposefully acknowledge and seek to redress power relations within a given context”

However, we expect this definition to evolve as we continue to learn from projects that are implementing these ideas on the ground.

As for all of us in this room, I hope these concepts helped to spark new ideas, questions or critiques. And even if you do not see yourself leaning towards a more feminist open project, I think something we can share is to see our commitment to open science as one to think critically and push the boundaries to imagine a more equitable, empathetic and radical future.


Donna Haraway (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies, 14(3), 575–599.

Patricia Hill Collins (1993). Black feminist thought in the matrix of domination. Social theory: The multicultural and classic readings, 615–625.

Kimberlee Crenshaw (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. U. Chi. Legal F., 139.

Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2014). R-words: Refusing research. Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities, 223–248.

Liboiron, M., Zahara, A., & Schoot, I. (2018). Community Peer Review: A Method to Bring Consent and Self-Determination into the Sciences

Ruha Benjamin (2016). Informed refusal: Toward a justice-based bioethics. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 41(6), 967–990.

Sasha Constanza-Chock (2018). Design Justice: Towards an Intersectional Feminist Framework for Design Theory and Practice.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003). “Under western eyes” revisited: Feminist solidarity through anticapitalist struggles. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(2), 499–535.

Iris Marion Young (2010) Responsibility for justice. Oxford University Press

More resources:

  1. The Technoscience Research Unit at the University of Toronto is a home for critical and creative research on the politics of technoscience.
  2. Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) is a feminist, anti-colonial lab specializing in monitoring plastic pollution.