What role for open and collaborative science in development?

Information and communication technologies or ICTs – especially the Web – have profoundly transformed the way we live and interact. Founded on the principle of openness, with open software and standards that are free for anyone to use and build upon, the Web enabled the formation of massive social networks that are creating innovative forms of economic and educational opportunities of an unprecedented scale.

Across some low- and middle-income countries, or LMICs, the rapid adoption and deep penetration of mobile technologies are providing access to banking, health services, learning resources, and important platforms for information sharing. These opportunities have the potential to empower citizens who did not previously enjoy such forms of access and participation [1].

The optimistic assumption that new organisational forms enabled by open network technologies could improve the lives and wellbeing of people has given rise to a new school of thinking known as ‘open development’ [2].

‘Open development’ is an umbrella term that encompasses open source software, open access to research outputs, open educational resources, open innovation, and open data in various domains, including governments.

The term is a broad proposition that open models and peer-based production, enabled by pervasive network technologies, non-market based incentive structures and alternative licensing regimes, can result in greater participation, access and collaboration across different sectors.

These interactions may in turn create new social benefits in areas as diverse as education, health, science and knowledge production, governance and citizen participation and small and medium enterprises [3].

A key understanding of ‘open development’ is that while technologies are not the sole driver of social change, they are deeply embedded in our social, economic and political fabric. We therefore need to understand ‘openness’ within the context of a complex socio-technical framework.

Development agencies such as the World Bank, Department for International Development in the United Kingdom and UNESCO are paying close attention to the ‘openness’ agenda and are supporting a variety of initiatives and policy development in these areas.

Many large funding agencies around the world are also supporting open access and open data policies, with the understanding that openness maximizes the return on funding investment through greater uptake and reuse of research results [4].

The International Development Research Centre, or IDRC, of Canada has been at the forefront of this trend, with key funding programmes designed to support researchers and organisations in the global South to investigate the nature and quality of openness and its impact across different sectors and socio-economic contexts [5].

The IDRC also provides resources and intellectual support for network building to share best practices, and to strengthen local research capacity and leadership in relevant areas of policy development.

The Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network – OCSDNet – is one of the key openness initiatives supported by the IDRC. The project is being jointly coordinated by iHub based in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Centre for Critical Development Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and supported by an international team of expert advisors [6].

The OCSDNet, which launched in July of this year, intends to mobilise and support researchers and practitioners from the global South [7] through a multi-stage project development process.

The goal of the project is to build a community of open science practitioners whose research and practices would deepen our understanding of the nature and impacts of open research and knowledge co-creation.

What is open and collaborative science?

Like ‘open development’, ‘open and collaborative science’ or OCS is an umbrella term that includes a set of ideas and practices that aims to change the traditional culture of research by making the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge more inclusive and publicly accessible at every stage of the research lifecycle.

The assumption is that open approaches to knowledge production have the potential to radically increase the visibility, reproducibility, efficiency, transparency and relevance of scientific research, while expanding the opportunities for a broad range of actors to participate in the knowledge production process.

Open and collaborative science promises a variety of benefits including the equitable participation of researchers from the global South, who are often marginalised in the traditional research competition process driven by Northern agendas.

This has the potential of leading to expanded and more inclusive ways of knowing, and is in keeping with our assumption that ‘collaboration’ entails equitable contribution in both the framing and the search for solutions to relevant problems, and not simply about following the norms set by those in power or in charge of resources.

In this regard, openness is not simply about gaining access to knowledge, but about the right to participate in the knowledge production process, driven by issues that are of local relevance, rather than research agendas set elsewhere or from the top down.

However, we should not lose sight of the fact that many major development challenges are regional and global in nature. Meeting these challenges requires not only appropriate local solutions, but also rapid and sustainable deployment of new tools and approaches that draw from the global scientific and knowledge commons. This is a key promise of OCS as well.

Design and goals of OCSDNet

While OCS purports to generate multiple benefits, in reality little research has been conducted into these asserted benefits and the contexts where they might be realised.

How is ‘openness’ practised by researchers in various institutional contexts and what motivates researchers to engage in such practices? How can open science approaches benefit researchers in the global South?

Can greater participation of citizens in the planning and implementation of scientific research increase its usefulness in addressing local development challenges? How can the sharing of knowledge as a public good be weighed against various forms of rights and incentives?

To begin to answer such questions, we issued a call for concept papers on potential research projects [8]. We are seeking case studies that employ innovative open processes in generating knowledge and actions intended to address a range of development challenges in various global South contexts – for example food security, health equity, citizen empowerment and climate change-related impact.

We are looking to support projects that utilise the prevalence of the Internet and associated digital tools to enable greater local and global research collaboration. Such collaboration need not be limited to traditional research communities.

They could engage citizen scientists, both in partnership with traditional research institutions, as well as those in non-traditional research locations through the use of open software, hardware and other open technologies and processes.

We expect that funding these case studies will strengthen the empirical foundation on the diversity of open and collaborative science practices as well as knowledge on their common principles, actors, motivations, and their institutional contexts.

We anticipate a mix of projects that include scientific research in different domains aimed at producing new knowledge, as well as critical research on ongoing initiatives, focusing on the behaviours, contexts, challenges and opportunities enabled by OCS.

The longer term goal is to construct a conceptual framework and a ‘Theory of Change’ [9] on how open science norms and practices could be further established in developing countries via a community-based and networked-driven approach, while building on key lessons learned from the funded case studies, and from other ongoing open initiatives [10].

Currently, we have very limited understanding of the social, political and institutional contexts and the value framework within which open approaches to research take place, and equally little about the mechanisms (causal and others) that link open science practices with potential development outcomes.

The OCSDNet is designed to address these gaps in our understanding through a multi-stage data collection and iterative theory building process.

Over the three-year duration of the project, we intend to nurture an interactive community of open science practitioners and thinkers who are highly cross-disciplinary and will bring a diversity of perspectives on the role of openness in science and development.

We invite like-minded individuals and organisations to join in our initiative. Please visit our site and follow us on Twitter @ocsdnet.

* I would like to thank Abby Speller and Angela Okune for their comments and suggestions.

* Leslie Chan is senior lecturer in the Centre for Critical Development Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough. He is also the director of Bioline International, one of the longest running open access portals for peer reviewed science journals from developing countries. Since July 2014, Chan has been serving as the principal investigator of the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network.

References and notes

[1] Elder, L, Emdon, H, Fuchs, R and Petrazzini, B (2013) Connecting ICTs to Development: The IDRC experience. Anthem Press.
[2] Smith, ML, Elder, L and Emdon, H (2011) “Open Development: A new theory for ICT4D”. Information Technologies & International Development, 7(1), pp-iii.
[3] See the various examples in this book: Smith, ML and Reilly, KMA (2014) Open Development: Networked innovations in international development. MIT Press.
[4] See for example Houghton, J, Rasmussen, B and Sheehan, P (2010) “Economic and social returns on investment in open archiving publicly funded research outputs”. SPARC Report.
[5] The Information and Networks programme, under the Science and Innovation programme at the IDRC, support many initiatives related to ICT and development and openness research. See the list of supported projects.
[6] See the profiles of the advisory board members here.
[7] Countries from Latin America, including Central America and the Caribbean, Middle East and North Africa, East, Central and South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa.
[8] See the OCSDNet website for details of the call and key dates.
[9] A theory of change is essentially a conceptual framework that guides the design and implementation of a research problem. It describes a process of the desired changes by making explicit the assumptions of the problem situation, its underlying causes, the institutional contexts and the actors, the short and long-term outcomes, and the processes that need to take place in order for the desired changes to occur.
[10] These include studies on open source, open educational resources and open data communities.