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Open science is more open in some places than others


Digital tools designed in rich countries exclude many researchers, say Louise Bezuidenhout and Hugh Shanahan

The open science movement is changing how we think about and practise science, through a commitment to ensuring that digital research resources are available to anyone, regardless of geographic location, academic background or financial situation. This commitment to equitable access has become a cornerstone of the movement and is increasingly underpinning our understanding of openness as not only the right way to do research but also the right way to be a researcher. 

Recent investments in strengthening open infrastructures continue to be integral to the movement. These investments have driven forward technological, disciplinary and social interconnectedness by creating publishing platforms, tools for curating and sharing data, and building skills capacity. In particular, repositories and digital tools are enabling data to be shared, accessed and reused on an unprecedented level.  

But the investment in and rapid evolution of open science has meant that enthusiasm can sometimes mask important issues. In particular, the dominance of a small number of high-income countries in the funding and development of open science infrastructures, through a mixture of public and private investment, are often overlooked.  

This means the design of these digital technologies usually reflects the working environments of researchers in high-income countries. This includes implicit assumptions about external factors such as bandwidth speed, availability of financial resources and geopolitical stability. 

In turn, the dominance of high-income countries in the discourse and deployment of open science has led to an asymmetry in how openness is assessed. Far more attention and effort are paid to moving data, publications and so on from their producers into an online environment than are paid to how resources move from the online environment to potential future users.  

This focus on uploading over downloading disadvantages researchers outside in low- and middle-income countries, who struggle with high data costs, poor bandwidth, political instability and vulnerable currencies. In Malawi, for example, a gigabyte of mobile data costs the equivalent of €25; in Sweden it is less than €2.  

Few open science tools are designed with such considerations in mind, but for the researchers who face them they can mean the difference between engagement and marginalisation. 

In 2021, we conducted a pilot study to gauge the accessibility of open science resources. Selecting 14 countries with a representative mix of incomes and political stability, we tested their access to over 2,500 open science resources—repositories, digital research tools and so on.  

Our results showed that some resources are more accessible in some countries than others. There was, for example, considerable variability in time outs, where a webpage fails to load. These are probably related to low bandwidth speed and other national infrastructural challenges, but it probably also reflects design decisions that have left some resources unsuited to their user environments.


More concerning is evidence of geoblocking—the restriction of access to a specified subset of users. Our evidence suggests the  geoblocking of key open science tools such as software repository GitHub. The list of countries affected can change rapidly as geopolitical issues emerge, but the evidence suggests users in some countries, in particular Syria, have been blocked from open science resources due to their country’s political affiliation or ongoing conflicts. 

Many conversations about inclusion in open science talk about the digital divide and the need to get people online. Our findings suggest this is just the tip of the iceberg. Users around the world still struggle to reach the open science landscape, and so are marginalised from the benefits of open research. The design and deployment of open science infrastructures needs to do more to recognise that being online varies greatly around the world. Simply making a resource available online is not a sufficient commitment to equity and inclusion. The implicit assumption in open science infrastructures that all users have comparable levels of connectivity needs to be challenged. 

To support this effort, we are building an Equitable Access Observatory, which will continue and expand the monitoring done in our pilot study, providing the data necessary to start important discussions, fix existing problems and monitor developments.

Using these data, the open science community can create a landscape that welcomes users from around the world. This is in line with the recent Unesco Open Science recommendations that note the “specific challenges of scientists and other open science actors in different countries”.

Louise Bezuidenhout is at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Hugh Shanahan is at Royal Holloway, University of London

This article also appeared in Research Europe