Thursday, 8 August 2019

'Critical views on open scholarship - an African perspective' - Summary of Speakers' Debate

On 3rd July 2019, the Information School, University of Sheffield, hosted a one-day workshop that started a conversation between Global North and Global South practitioners, researchers and academics about open scholarship in a global context, with Africa as a focus for that discussion. We were also lucky enough to be hosting (courtesy University of Sheffield GCRF QR funding) participants in this debate from Rwanda, a country in the East and Central African region, which has an interesting socio-political context deriving from a checkered colonial past, internal conflict and genocide and language policies implemented to craft a modern political identity. In introducing the debate, the two convenors of the workshop, Pamela Abbott and Andrew Cox, both senior lecturers in the Information school, set out some markers as to why they were interested in this topic. For Pamela, her background as an ICT4D researcher working in African contexts with librarian communities of practice, and her own personal experience of postcolonial life made her exploration of this topic a journey of self-discovery. For Andrew, this was about learning in new contexts where different ways of knowing could be encountered.  He set a tone to the introduction by being quite self-critical and pointing out the irony of his “position of white male privilege” in such a setting and his ignorance of Africa beyond it being seen as a problem portrayed by a biased Western media which conveniently ignores the source of these problems being to a great extent a product of historical Western hegemony.  In many ways, our collective privilege in this university setting diminished our “rights” to hold this workshop but maybe we could learn from the experience and engage in some decolonial thinking as well. With this introduction, the floor was opened to the first panel of speakers.

Speakers Stephen Pinfield, Florence Piron and Louise Bezuidenhout
The debate started with a global view of the open access (OA) movement delivered by Stephen Pinfield, Professor of Information Services Management, at the Information School.  Stephen began his talk by showing a distorted image of a world map demonstrating the inequality of recorded scientific output in the bloated Global North as opposed to the attenuated Global South.  The image brought home the point that even though the OA movement was originally intended to provide a level playing field to address these inequalities, it may have only resulted in exacerbating them and creating further divides in open scholarship. Stephen’s aim in his part of the debate was to see if some rapprochement could be reached between the “pessimistic” views of OA in a global context and the more “optimistic” visions that impelled this movement in the first place. He thus took us through a history of the OA movement from its beginnings in Budapest, Berlin and Bethesda (BBB), stressing the various dimensions of OA, its defining characteristics, the economics of OA, landscape studies on OA, underlying reasons for biases in OA publishing and ways of addressing lack of uptake.  The main issue, he argued, that needs addressing in levelling the OA playing field, is participation (access and contribution).  Stephen’s response to addressing this issue - “the clue is in greater openness not just of publications but greater openness of scientific practice, that seems to be where things are going”.  In concluding, he added a cautionary note against an over-simplistic critical agenda that seeks to “demolish without rebuilding”.

From this opening salvo, Florence Piron, Professor in the département d’information et de communication, Université Laval, Québec, Canada, countered with an impassioned alternate viewpoint on open science: “une autre science est possible” (another science is possible), which she clarified by the end of her talk to be a science that is open, fair and decolonial.  In keeping with the standard that the convenors unwittingly set, Florence declared her positionality as well, (with Stephen, it was “ditto” to Andrew’s). She is a woman, she declared, a Franchophone and an immigrant. Furthermore, she contrasted herself from the “one world science” view (of John Watson, apparently) and knowledge “bubbles” by opening herself to other kinds of knowledges that do not depend on abstraction and theory (like Information Science) and which could be accessed from the pluralist mind of an anthropologist, philosopher and social epistemologist.  While making strong statements about her identity as a scholar, she nonetheless acknowledged that these were also traits that could potentially reduce her privilege in a world dominated by a “great uniform narrative” about what constitutes scientific practice.

Florence Piron presenting
Florence then proceeded to persuade the audience that a decolonial perspective could change our perceptions as to what open access/open science could be.  Science does not have to be neutral: "Et si la recherche scientifique ne pouvait pas être neutre?" (What if scientific research could not be neutral?) Florence referred to this published output as a “settling of the scores” against the notion of scientific neutrality of data and percentages.  She cited various other decolonial thinkers from the Global South (Autoro Escobar on the “Pluriverse - a Post Development Dictionary”; Shiv Visvanathan on “Cognitive Justice”; Paulin Hountondji on “extraversion”) from whom she drew inspiration for some radical enactment of a different way of thinking about science and openness.  Reproducing the distorted world map image that Stephen had introduced in his talk, she demonstrated to us how a “decolonial” view could allow you to reimagine a different conclusion from this image, when you considered the bias in the source and meaning of its underlying data.  In concluding the talk, Florence gave insights into the action research SOHA project which focused on cognitive injustice - “all the phenomena, situations, attitudes, circumstances, etc. that prevent the ability of African scholars and students to really deploy the full potential of their amazing intellectual skills, of their knowledge, scientific capacity and service to their local sustainable development” - and from which some truly inspirational and bold “reimagined” solutions to this problem were being pursued.

Louise Bezuidenhout was the next speaker, a South African researcher from the Science and Technology Studies (STS) field, who now practices in the UK (Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS), University of Oxford).  Louise challenged us in her talk to remember that inequality starts with physical resources and infrastructure that can unwittingly be reproduced in online environments with the introduction of open science and the spectrum of online activities that are meant to support it.   She reminded us that if we are not careful of the way in which we promote open science in low-resourced settings we may end up introducing unnecessary blockages to doing science in this way.  Openness as an egalitarian ideology could thus be threatened by unnecessary barriers introduced inadvertently by a model of open science that does not really take into consideration the heterogeneity of research settings; the little differences of contexts. In keeping with the technologically deterministic thinking of some of the early ICT4D interventions in the Global South, she mentioned that there might be an impression that once infrastructure issues are “fixed” then access to resources would be considered the same in the low-resourced setting as they are in high income contexts.  But such a view fails to understand issues about context that could be “invisible”, of which she gave several examples:  the researchers who fund research out of their own pockets; the embarrassment of revealing you are using antiquated equipment; the fear that others could reproduce your research at a much quicker pace and render your work obsolete.

Louise made the interesting observation that, “…embedding open science in African research is not simply a case of raising awareness and telling people it’s an awesome idea and we should be enthusiastically embracing it.  We need to find ways of overcoming the drastic divide between an endorsement of the values and an embodiment of the practices.”  She also made it a call to arms for the open science community to fix this problem by being more conscious of their design decisions and the potential to reproduce inequality in online settings.  But how could it be fixed?  Louise proffered some ideas to reduce the incidence of creating more inequalities through open science including normalising the discourse on challenges to research practice (i.e., it’s not just an African problem), recognising how open science could work in a low-resourced settings by emphasising the “small things” that do work and resisting the perception that African scientists need to “catch up”.  Indeed, they may be pursuing a vision of resource provision and research practice that is not endemic or achievable in their contexts. Open science cannot assume that accessibility and usability of resources is at the same level in all contexts.  Context does matter in this case.

Dr Pamela Abbott

This blog has been a summary of the main points of the debate presented by the speakers at this workshop. We will have further blogs outlining more of the day’s proceedings to follow.  The recordings of the presentations on this was based can be accessed at: 

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