Edited by Cassandra Gould van Praag
I would like to ask “For whom is our science open?”
We talk about “open science”, but in many ways our efforts to improve the transparency of our research reproduces the same “closed” systems that hurt and exclude large parts of our society. This leads to a culture of unjustified power differentials, which on an individual level enables bullying and harassment in academia, and at a societal level means the needs, ambitions and talents of historically excluded people continue to be ignored.
I would like to join the voices of innumerate activist groups who are working to bring justice to the people they represent. We have a responsibility to listen to their messages and understand how we as scientists, or “open scientists”, are complicit in supporting the injustices that cause us all harm. I will start by reflecting on what I think is wrong with our existing focus on “outputs” rather than “people” in open science. I will then present a series of questions we can all continue to ask ourselves in order to prioritise radical inclusivity in open science.
To most people, “Open science” means open access publishing, sharing your data, sharing your code, essentially giving people a lens into your research outputs to verify their quality and to extend rather than reinvent the wheel. The focus is on outputs but we have largely overlooked the systems and people which go into creating them.
Does it matter if a PI shares all of their lab’s code, if they’ve made every woman in the building feel uncomfortable, degraded or vulnerable as they’ve carved their way through a “rockstar” career? Or what good are my terabytes of shared data when the entry price for a secondary analysis is million dollar infrastructure?
But there is nothing new here, right? “Rockstars” will always be idolized for their “art” while their petty misdemeanors or willful ignorance of systemic inequalities are swept under the rug. The people with money will always have the freedom to do more, and direct the conversation. This is just the reflection of the society we live in. A society where racism, sexism, bullying, elitism, exclusion, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, classism and narcissism are the norm. We as scientists operate within the context of this society, we are part of it, and we inherit its systemic biases and inequalities. Where we fail is in our refusal to observe and reflect on our position in society, and take steps to fix the system. Because to do so would mean accepting that the system in which many of us have flourished is broken, and acknowledging that it is breaking others on a daily basis. When you are accustomed to privilege, equity feels like oppression, so why not hold on to that power, right?
So I ask, for whom is our science open? Not for those who have been driven out because of this power differential. Not for those who are considered too unimportant or too different. Not for those who are not white enough, not male enough, not cis or straight enough, not able enough, not English enough, not rich enough, not Westernized enough, not prestigious enough, not old enough. Not for those who have too many caretaking responsibilities, or mental health problems. Am I missing anyone?
As Audre Lorde tells us, “The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house”, so if we want to operate in a system where our science, aptitude and interests are not judged based on some criteria which we have no control over, we are going to have to take some responsibility for fixing the system ourselves.
What we’re aiming for is a radically inclusive scientific practice. Sure reproducibility is cool, but have you tried a revolution of compassion in response to a humanitarian crisis in academia?
Where do we start, though? These are complex systems, so there will be no easy solutions. Instead of a roadmap to success, I would like to offer you a list of supplies for the journey, to keep your energy boosted and your focus on the goal. These are questions to ask yourself when you are writing a grant or starting up a research project, collecting or sharing data, reading or reviewing a paper, mentoring students, attending conferences or sharing ideas, when you are conducting any of your daily activities as a researcher.
Who are you excluding?
If your research is about autism, for example, shouldn’t autistic people be part of the planning to help prioritise the goals of the research? Aren’t they the people who have the best context for which initiatives help and which ones hurt? Or if you’re investigating new ways of distributing resources in a country in the Global South, were experts from that region involved at all?
Who might you be hurting?
Remember to prioritise the people behind the outputs, and know that your words and actions can have impact in ways you didn’t intend. If you develop a machine learning algorithm to classify people into different groups, have you thought about what this classification would actually mean for those very real people? And what it would mean if a government decides to consider policy changes based on your work? Would doing so risk causing these people harm, even if you didn’t intend it?
Are you distributing the power?
Or are you just ticking the boxes for diversity, equity, and inclusion? Are you asking the only two black women on staff to lead the committee and do all the work, while ignoring their recommendations? If you are doing work that could influence the circumstances of people from a specific group or shared identity, are you giving them real power to change things?
Are you listening, or are you centering yourself?
Reactive or defensive responses are to be expected, but remember that this isn’t about “you”. You didn’t make the system the way it is, but you can help make it better. If you feel hurt by a criticism levied against you or people like you (especially if you are in a position of relative power), listen to and learn from people who tell you that they are hurting, or being excluded. Listen, and then work together to fix things.
Is what you’re doing reinforcing the existing power structure?
The academic system as we know it is inherently competitive, hierarchical and elitist. But our ultimate goal as scientists is to understand nature, and improve lives. So are your new initiatives, even if structured to promote open science efforts, falling into the same traps?
There are many, many more questions to ask, many different approaches one could follow, many topics to focus on. But let us keep asking ourselves these questions. Let us use that to energize ourselves on the journey to a radically inclusive scientific practice.