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Openness, be it free access to research papers, open source design or open data, is a hot topic among scientists in developed nations. The idea is that everyone should have a say in what questions research tackles as well as have access to the results.
Although this approach could boost development, the precise way it could achieve this remains poorly understood.
But this may change over the next two years. OCSDNet (Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network), which was launched in October 2014, announced last month (19 January) 13 projects it will fund to investigate this question.
Each project, which will get up to CAN$80,000 (US$65,000), will assess the benefits and dangers of involving stakeholders in the development research process.
One project will hunt for ways that small island states can share information after natural disasters. Another will use citizen science to help communities adapt to climate change. A third plans to identify the barriers to graduate students adopting collaborative research methods in Haiti and Francophone Africa.
In vogue, but vague
“The openness paradigm is in vogue at the moment, but it’s not grounded in research that shows what the impacts on development are,” says Angela Okune, a researcher at Kenyan technology facility iHub, which is helping to organise the network.
Currently, most open and collaborative science (OCS) success stories come from developed countries. The Human Genome Project of the 1990s and 2000s, which allowed anyone to devote part of their computer’s operating power to analysing the genetic code, is perhaps the best known.
“Researchers need to work with society and the grassroots because they are the people who are suffering and know what the problems are.”
Hebe Vessuri, Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research
To run similar collaborative projects in developing countries it is essential to highlight how the approach can answer their needs, Okune says.
Yet there is confusion around exactly what ‘open and collaborative science’ is.
Okune says the term means different things to different people. Some pursue an openness agenda by sharing their research findings or data. For instance, the World Bank and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development are working to make all their information freely available online.
Others, including Okune, say that open access should go further. Truly open science must break into the black box of research and allow input from other stakeholders at all stages of the process. In this sense, OCS goes to the heart of how science is done, and who does it.
‘Citizen science’ has already leveraged crowdsourcing to monitor deforestation in Brazil, natural disasters in Haiti and gender violence in Egypt, to name just a few.
Another initiative, called Ushahidi, used text messages, emails and Google maps to chart the spread of violence after disputed presidential elections in Kenya in 2007. Its open source software was later used by a local conservation charity called WildlifeDirect to help monitor animal numbers and poaching.
This last example illustrates OCS’s promise for development. First, there is no need to reinvent the wheel: a basic technology platform can be adapted quickly and cheaply. Second, community involvement makes the research relevant to local people and answers the questions they deem important.
Collaboration with communities
For Hebe Vessuri, head of science studies at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, collaboration with communities is the only way to solve global problems such as climate change impacts, pollution or food scarcity.
“Researchers need to work with society and the grassroots because they are the people who are suffering and know what the problems are,” she says.
But she sees the open movement jostling for influence with the opposing ideology of privatisation, where science is only accessible to those willing to pay and everything has a price. In her eyes, a future of open access and collaboration is far from certain.
If open science wants to widen its appeal and overcome this pressure, it must create some fundamental principles and definitions, says Okune. This is where OCSDNet comes in.
Currently, evidence of open science’s impact remains anecdotal, but OCSDNet hopes to bring supporters together to share ideas and best practices.
“By creating a cohesive community, our longer-term aim is to be able to drive some of these bigger agendas with policymakers,” Okune says.