Open Insights: An interview with Leslie Chan
Posted by Paula Clemente Vega on 2018-12-10
Open Access, the Global South and the Politics of Knowledge Production and Circulation
An Open Insights interview with Leslie Chan
Leslie Chan is Associate Professor in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media and the Centre for Critical Development Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough, where he serves as the Associate Director. An early practitioner of the Web for scholarly exchange and online learning, Leslie is particularly interested in the role and design of network in the flow of knowledge and their impact on local and international development. As one of the original signatories of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, a historical and defining event of the global open access movement, Leslie has been active in the experimentation and implementation of scholarly communication initiatives of varying scales around the world. The Director of Bioline International, Chair of the Electronic Publishing Trust for Development, Leslie is a long-time advocate for knowledge equity and inclusive development. Leslie has served as advisor to numerous projects and organizations, including the Canadian Research Knowledge Network, the American Anthropological Association, the International Development Research Centre, UNESCO, and the Open Society Foundation. He was the Principal Investigator of the Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network, funded jointly by the IDRC and DIFD.
OLH: Hi Leslie, thanks for talking to us! To start, why is Open Access an important issue for scholarly publishers and researchers in the “developing world”?
Leslie: Thanks for the invitation. I’ve been a big fan of the Open Library of Humanities since its inception so it is a pleasure to contribute to this Open Insight series.
The issue of Open Access, researchers, and scholarly publishing in the “developing world” surfaces a number of ethical and social justice issues, that until recently, were not sufficiently acknowledged. The most prominent one being the extreme asymmetry in research outputs between researchers in well-resourced and poor countries.1 This imbalance is highly reflective of the deeper historical and structural power that had positioned former colonial masters as the centres of knowledge production, while relegating former colonies to peripheral roles, largely as suppliers of raw data. In recent decades, global capitalism has subsumed these unequal power relations, and the asymmetry is further amplified through the commodification of academic knowledge and the creation of toll and copyright barriers.
Open Access not only questions the multiple barriers to equitable knowledge making and circulation, it also raises important questions about power and inequality, such as whose knowledge counts, who has the power to set research agendas, and how knowledge is legitimized.
Open Access not only questions the multiple barriers to equitable knowledge making and circulation, it also raises important questions about power and inequality, such as whose knowledge counts, who has the power to set research agendas, and how knowledge is legitimized. Open Access, therefore, raised the possibility that the structural power imbalance could be readdressed, leading to greater acknowledgement of knowledge produced in other parts of the world outside of the centres. For me, this is a central goal of Open Access, making the process of research more equitable and democratic, while acknowledging various forms of epistemic injustice in the production and circulation of knowledge.
OLH: In your opinion, do you see any particular risk in the internationalisation of research produced in the Global South, particularly when following “international standards” and “best practices” to ensure “quality” and “interoperability”? You expressed your concerns in this piece, referring to Scielo and their journals being indexed by the Web of Science and Scopus, and the use of ScholarOne, as the proprietary system for manuscript submission and peer review management, all commercial firms from the Global North.
Leslie: I do see a number of risks with the “internationalization” agenda. First there is often a conflation of technical interoperability standards for information exchanges with quality standards. Interoperability standards are indeed important for discovery and exchanges but they are external to the quality of research, which can only be assessed by those who have knowledge of the research areas.
The implicit message is that research from the South has to mimic that from the North, even if it means abandoning research that would contribute to local well-being, while favouring research with international appeal, which means finding readers in journals published in the North.
Second, such “international” standards are almost without exceptions set by institutions, increasingly private ones, from the Global North. The implications is that certification of knowledge from the Global South has to conform to standards set elsewhere, often with commercial interests embedded. It is now well documented that such distance standards are often biased against research on “local” issues or research presenting local perspectives. Instead, “international” often means favouring theoretical and methodological approaches from the North, while undermining or ignoring perspectives and approaches that have significant local relevance. The implicit message is that research from the South has to mimic that from the North, even if it means abandoning research that would contribute to local well-being, while favouring research with international appeal, which means finding readers in journals published in the North.
In this regard it is interesting that you switched the term “developing countries” to “Global South” in your question. The term has multiple meanings but one of them refers to “spaces and peoples negatively impacted by contemporary capitalist globalization”.2 This usage focuses our attention on the nature of power and marginalization within global capitalism, and this is appropriate when it comes to the increasing control of the handful of oligarch publishers over the circulation of global public knowledge.
Commercial publishers have vested interest in setting technical standards because they have significant economic externalities in terms of consolidating market power and competitive advantages. In the case of scholarly publishing, standards such as DOI, JIF, and even metadata standards, are not only technical decisions, but are also political decisions with public policy implications. This is because these standards are not neutral, but are designed to privilege certain types of knowledge or outputs, while rendering other invisible. One can argue that by controlling standards and standard setting, private companies have the power to drive decision about research agenda setting and even institutional organizations and distribution of resources. This to me is the biggest risk, that is private companies making governance decisions for public institutions, often without contestation by public institutions because the power embedded in these standards are themselves invisible. This risk is more acute for the Global South, but institutions and researchers in the North are not immune.
At the recent Congress of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences in Buenos Aires, where thousands of social scientists from across Latin America congregated, the overarching theme was the “Struggles for Equality, Social Justice, and Democracy in a Turbulent World”.3 And among the social justice issues most hotly debated across the many sessions and pubic events was the issue of epistemic injustice perpetuated by the North, and how South-South sharing and collaboration could provide better alternatives to the monolithic “publish or perish” modes of knowledge production that is putting incredible and unsustainable stresses on institutions and researchers across the Global South.
One common consensus was that to break free from the peripheral position that Latin American research continues to be subjugated through the imposition of “international” quality standards, the LA research communities must create evaluation frameworks that are appropriate to their own contexts, and not simply subject themselves to these unfair practices.
At the congress, it was gratifying to see a great deal of energy and synergy coming together from across a number of technical and research communities in an exciting initiative called Ameli, Open Knowledge for Latin America and the Global South (AmeliCA).4 A collaboration between CLACSO in Argentina, Redalyc in Mexico, and many organizations across LA, this community-driven initiative aims to create a sustainable framework for open knowledge in Latin America and the Global South. A core component of the initiative is to develop a non-hierarchical framework of research assessment that takes into account local impact and community well-beings.
This community approach is in rather sharp contrast to the recent decision by SciELO to integrate its indexing system into the Web of Science, now owned by Clarivate Analytics, a private equity firm that also owns ScholarOne, a widely used proprietary system for managing submission and peer review. I’ve expressed my concerns of SciELO’s decision in the blog you mentioned and will not repeat them here, other than to point to the differences in approach with AmeliCA.
OLH: In which ways does the journal impact factor contribute to the invisibility of research produced in the Global South?
Leslie: The quantitative and formulaic nature of the JIF gives it the illusion of objectivity and authority, but it is a technology that completely decontextualizes the nature of research and their real life impact. I gave some examples above in terms of how the JIF render other epistemic frameworks and research problems invisible. Language is of course a major issue and to be “international”, English is now a must. In this regard it is a good reminder that it is not only researchers from the poorer countries that are made invisible, but also researchers in the North who wish to publish in their own languages and to preserve their cultural heritage. It is the capitalist logic of decision making by the market that render these Northern languages and research traditions part of the “Global South”. The embedded purpose of the JIF is to generate numbers that could be easily used for ranking purposes, and ranking is fantastically good at driving competition, consumption, and over production. And of course the essence of ranking is inequality and invisibility. It thrives on them.
The embedded purpose of the JIF is to generate numbers that could be easily used for ranking purposes, and ranking is fantastically good at driving competition, consumption, and over production. And of course the essence of ranking is inequality and invisibility. It thrives on them.
OLH: What role does Open Data play in the future of Open Access, and in the future of the research produced in the Global South?
Leslie: I am afraid Open data is the new land grab. A few years ago, Neelie Kroes, the then Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda, declared, on numerous occasions, that “data is the new oil”5, and that that there is “almost no limit to the social and economic wonders it can generate”.6 This was not a new mantra, and indeed companies like Clavirate Analytics was created precisely to take advantage of the “limitless” flow of data from the research communities world wide. Elsevier had recently transition from a content provider to a data analytic company as there is far more money to be made in data extraction and sales of “research intelligence” than publishing.
That there is plenty of money to be made from users’ data by the corporation is pretty clear. But what exact benefits are there for the research communities, other than the vague promises of faster discovery, transparency, and efficiency? And are these not part of the corporate speak? Indeed the more data we make open, the more they would be welcomed.
But if data is indeed the new oil, who owns the oil, and how should it be governed, and for whose benefit? What about issues of privacy, security, consent, misuse, and other important ethical issues and historical injustice?
But if data is indeed the new oil, who owns the oil, and how should it be governed, and for whose benefit? What about issues of privacy, security, consent, misuse, and other important ethical issues and historical injustice? In the past, “openness” has been used as a justification by colonial settlers to dispossess indigenous people of their land and of their knowledge. Indigenous people are now standing up for their rights to refuse to be further exploited. They want a voice in how their knowledge is to be represented, circulated, and shared in their own terms. We need to respect that, as well as be critical of a host of other reasons that we have only just scratched the surface.
So in a positive way, Open Data forces us to pause and rethink what openness means, and whether it should be unconditional, and more important, under what conditions should refusal be honoured. We should be asking the same questions about Open Access.
OLH: What is OCSDNet? What did you seek to initiative and what were/are your aspirations with a network like this?
Leslie: OCSDNet stands for Open and Collaborative Science in Development Network.7 It was a research and network building projects co-funded by IDRC in Canada and DFID in the UK. The project started in 2014, and officially ended in 2017, though we are still carrying out some aspects of the network building exercise and are still writing up the findings.
Our intention was to better understand what openness means in terms of knowledge making and sharing in various Global South contexts, to conduct comparative analyses to see whether there were common principles in play, and how adaptive open practices could be in different socio-political situations. Through the grant, we were able to fund twelve sub-projects and created partnership with various organizations across thirty countries. The activities ranged from environmental research by citizen scientists in Lebanon, science curriculum development involving school children in Kyrgyzstan, governance issues of a virtual herbarium in Brazil, community based sustainability initiatives in Central America, and critical appraisal of various on-going research initiatives in terms of their challenges with research sharing and their social impact across a number of Latin American countries.
A collaborative book with contributions from all the partners will be coming out in April of next year.8 We hope the volume will contribute empirical findings to on going debates, and expand upon the literature and critical perspectives on “openness”, which has largely been written from the standpoint of the Global North.
* Photo of members of the OCSDNet team (from left to right: Becky Hillyer, Angela Okune, Alejandro Posada, Denisse Albornoz, Leslie Chan). Source
OLH: You are currently investigating at issues regarding community-based infrastructure from an equity perspective and looking at the geopolitics of knowledge production through the knowledge G.A.P. project. Can you tell us more about this project and what do you and your team set to achieve?
Leslie: The Knowledge G.A.P project is an attempt to understand the various social justice issues related to the production and circulation of academic knowledge, some of which I outlined earlier. The idea is to turn the “gaze” back onto academic institutions, this time on those primarily based in the Global North. We are asking how researchers, their institutions, as well as funding policies contribute to the inequalities in access and production that we see historically and today. In other words, we are trying to find out how are we complicit, how we are implicated, and hopefully, how we can find ways to redress the structural inequalities that we help maintain.
Within the project there are several inter-related strands of inquiry. A team is looking at authors and their institutional affiliation in several top development studies journals, asking whether and how Global South scholars came to be under-represented as authors and editorial members in these journals, and what impact these may have in terms of our understanding of development challenges in the Global South.9 We are also interested in the pedagogical implications of this knowledge imbalance, and how students could drive change in our current system. It is important to mention that all the members of this research team are undergraduate students in our program. Their participation is a reminder that students are active knowledge producers and critical scholars, not just passive receivers of knowledge codified by Global North institutions.
Another research strand looks at the issue of epistemic governance through open science policy transfer. This team, led by a former graduate and an associate of the OCSDNet project, Denisse Albornoz, has been conducting content analysis of open science policies from around the world and to trace the influence of key rhetoric originating from the Global North.10
The strand of research that has been receiving a fair bit of attention is the one looking at the vertical integration of the big publishers and their mergers and acquisitions strategy of building end-to-end workflow infrastructure, from data gathering to article submission, and from peer review to validation and subsequent citations and reputation management.11 We are also interested in the process of “platformization of infrastructure”12 and how such platforms are being designed for massive data extraction, with the ultimate aim of driving research decisions based on machine learning and AI. We are very concerned with the ethical implications of such big data applications and the potential biases such systems will replicate, given that they will likely built on existing data and highly biased criteria of academic success, such as the JIF.
We are very concerned with the ethical implications of such big data applications and the potential biases such systems will replicate, given that they will likely built on existing data and highly biased criteria of academic success, such as the JIF.
These strands overlap and are meant to demonstrate how we need to pay more attention to the issue of building truly open infrastructure that are governed by the research communities. Or else we face a scenario of teaching subjects and doing research in service of corporate AI in the not too distant future.
OLH: You were one of the original signatories of the Budapest Open Access Initiative, a historical and decisive event of the global open access movement. How do you see the current state of Open Access now almost 17 years later?
Leslie: Seventeen years ago the web was still in its infancy, Facebook didn’t exist, and AI seemed rather fanciful and unrelated to scholarly publishing. There was plenty of excitement and optimism back then, that the “openness” afforded by the web would bring about a new world of “global knowledge commons” where access and contribution to the commons would be driven by shared values and interests, not by monetary gains. Indeed when Melissa Hagemann from the Open Society Institute invited a group of us to meet in Budapest, her email carried the headlines of Strategies for Building the Global Knowledge Commons.
It is becoming clear that adding openness to an asymmetrical and highly unequal system simply amplifies the gap and empowers the already powerful.
Fast forward 17 years, not only do we not see any disruption to the legacy publishers, they are arguably far more powerful than ever before. They have done so by co-opting the agenda of Open Access, by catering to the research funders’ desire of “value for money”, and by feeding the institutional addiction for ever better ranking on “World Class University” league tables. The data for THE university ranking is now supplied by Elsevier.13 Add to this their deep pockets for acquiring promising technologies, their savvy in standards setting, and their ability to harness the network effect to further concentrate their power, they have come to demonstrate that openness has been far more beneficial to big corps than for the average researcher. It is becoming clear that adding openness to an asymmetrical and highly unequal system simply amplifies the gap and empowers the already powerful.
Seventeen years ago research funders were not directly implicated in Open Access. It was largely a grass roots movement, driven by librarians and academics and smaller independent publishers. The involvement of funders, particularly private funders, has been a mixed blessing. So far, they have been long on mandates, but short on real support. Policy like PlanS is meant to drive change, but how change is supposed to happen is never articulated or guided by an explicit theory of change and researchers are left in confusion. In the end, policies for the sake of open access will again further existing inequality, especially if the APC model becomes the norm. Instead of trying to cap the earnings of some publishers, why not provide funds to support other innovative models and experimentations? Diversity of models should be the goal, not “value for money,” given the diversity of communities across disciplines and across geopolitical regions. One size does not fit all.
And 17 years on, the biggest disappointment has been the institutions of higher education. Rather than actively support their own faculty and researchers with funding for tools and infrastructure for scholarly communication, or engage in collaborative development with peer institutions, universities have largely left researchers to fend for themselves. Institutional repositories, once a pride for some, have been left languishing in most cases. Instead, senior administrators have been contend with out-sourcing not only their knowledge infrastructure to commercial entities, but they also ceded control of the important task of reputation management to commercial firms, who are turning out to be the same entities that control the entire research infrastructure.
Well, I am sorry with all the doom and gloom. But there are plenty of bright lights despite what I have been saying, and most point to independent community driven initiatives. The Ameli-CA initiative I mentioned earlier, for example. The Public Knowledge Project has been a stalwart for supporting grass-root initiatives for twenty years. Bioline International is completely its 25th year of operation, having been one of the original signatories of the BOAI.
And of course there is the Open Library of Humanities, with its brilliant collective model of Library Partnership Subsidies that clearly demonstrates that community based model can work! The growing success of the OLH is also a strong reminder of the power of collective action and how other worlds are possible when we think beyond our disciplinary and institutional confines. Let’s celebrate and practice bibliodiversity14 and epistemic diversity. That would be in keeping with the true spirit of Open Access.
 See the map in this Tweet by Juan Pablo Alperin https://twitter.com/juancommander/status/1038525569904783360?s=11
 Mahler, A. G. (2017). Global South - Literary and Critical Theory - Oxford Bibliographies - obo. Retrieved December 9, 2018, from http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780190221911/obo-9780190221911-0055.xml
 Ameli, Open Knowledge for Latin America and the Global South (AmeliCA): http://www.amelica.org/en/index.php/que-es-ameli/
 See for example, http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-12-149_en.htm;
 Details and publications are available on the project web site: http://ocsdnet.org
 https://press.uottawa.ca/contextualizing-openness.html. An e-version of the book will be open access.
 Goudarzi , Saman and Mewa , Tasneem (2018). Mapping Academic Publishing: Locating Enclaves of Development Knowledge. https://elpub.episciences.org/4639
 Albornoz , Denisse and Huang , Maggie and Martin , Issra , and Mateus , Maria and Touré , Aicha , et al. (2018). Framing Power: Tracing Key Discourses in Open Science Policies: https://elpub.episciences.org/4612
 Posada , Alejandro and Chen , George (2018). Inequality in Knowledge Production: The Integration of Academic Infrastructure by Big Publishers https://elpub.episciences.org/4618
 Plantin, J.-C., Lagoze, C., Edwards, P. N., & Sandvig, C. (2016). Infrastructure studies meet platform studies in the age of Google and Facebook. New Media & Society, 1461444816661553. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444816661553
Our thanks to Leslie, and keep an eye out for more #EmpowOA Open Insights soon!
Back to News List