Drawing, remembering, knowing: natural history and the ecological imagination

By Meredith Root-Bernstein (Aarhus University)

Geo: Geography and Environment recently published my personal essay about how natural history practices have helped me to think about interdisciplinary research and collaborations.  I emphasize in the essay how developing and sharing habits of observing, interpreting, and considering the human contexts of nature can help form shared understandings as the basis for exchanges about social and natural sciences of the environment.  In that essay, I discuss seeing an espino (Acacia caven) with a liana growing on it in central Chile.  My research involves searching for the key problems and solutions for the conservation of a silvopastoral system (“espinal”) and the surrounding shrub and forest habitats in this mediterranean-climate zone.  The most common species in espinal is the espino (Acacia caven).  Yet, I had never seen an espino with a liana, and I became intrigued by trying to understand the potential ecological and social meanings of this unusual species assemblage.  Here, I expand on that essay with a discussion of a sketch of the liana and the espino.  While looking for something else I came across this drawing I made of the espino and its liana:

Bernstein image

I had forgotten about the sketch, and I have also forgotten the exact circumstances of making it.  I am sure that I didn’t make it in situ, and a few days probably elapsed between seeing the tree and making the drawing. The structure of the trunk is hard to read.  First I thought it suggested that the tree is old and perhaps has ridges or hollows, but this doesn’t match the photograph.  I also couldn’t think of any example of thick, undulating or textured espino trunks.  Something was wrong, either with the drawing, my memory, or my knowledge of espinos.  Then, while walking past some trees here in Denmark with ivy on them, I realized by analogy that I had drawn the vines of the liana descending to the ground.

The liana seems to be partly imaginary.  I remember seeing red stems and green leaves, but I am fairly sure that there were no black drupes at the time and that I only saw images of them by looking up the species on the internet.  The drawing thus knits together memory and imagination to represent the way I was thinking about my observation.

The ambiguity of the sketch forced me to think about the visual and structural patterns that things make, and how those map onto our other kinds of knowledge and memory.   There are really two issues here: one is that the sketch was by nature approximate, hasty, and in this case not based on direct observation but rather memory and its own approximations.  All of these aspects confer an abstract nature on the sketch.  It excludes the inessential and retains only an impression, just enough to reconstruct what was seen.  The second issue though relates to my lack of experience thinking about and observing lianas.  This led to what might be a not-so-clear abstraction of a liana growing up a trunk, and certainly created ambiguity in interpretation.  But the ivy I saw that helped me to understand the sketched pattern of something I had only seen once before—a liana on an espino—taught me about lianas and vines in general.

An important part of natural history is personal memory, the accumulation of implicit and tacit knowledge.  How do we make these memories relevant to interpreting the future as well as the past?  Writing, sketching and showing others are all important means of communication, that emphasize different aspects of nature—the narratives and cycles, the structural patterns, the kinaesthetic and embodied knowledge of where, when and how.

It is well-known that natural history drawings have features that photographs do not: they can represent a general or ideal example of something, facilitating recognition, and they can bring attention to particular features or patterns through emphasis, selectivity and abstraction.

As I mention in the article, I think of natural history as seeking patterns, which can be used to interpret the past, but also potentially the future.  In my drawing, I imagined the visual effect of the liana on the espino in a season when it had fruit. In the Anthropocene, it might be interesting to think more about the natural history of the future.  How will places look, behave and feel under climate change? How will we read the landscape of abandoned infrastructures in the future?  What unexpected species pairing will we find somewhere next year, testimony to some casual event yesterday?  These visions don’t have to be apocalyptic—and they don’t have to be written.   Drawings can often be both more subtle and more complex than words.  They have their own logic of organization and representation.

I recently saw a short article in the ESA Bulletin about how ecologists can avoid midlife crises and burnout.  Going into the field from time to time was one suggestion.  I would also add to that that the practice of natural history, and the attempt to communicate it, if only to oneself later on, can be both enjoyable and meaningful.  It was a pleasant surprise to find this sketch that I had forgotten about, and it brought a new angle to what the liana and the espino taught me about the socioecological interactions of central Chile.

Who knows, practicing a little natural history on your days out might even inspire a new line of research, maybe an interdisciplinary one.  You don’t have to try to be serious and professional about natural history, which might take away the enjoyment of being in nature.  Play is an important way to explore the world, and its not just for children.  Many accomplished scientists, among others, take time to have fun with no clear purpose as a way to think better (see here  and here).  Later on, accumulated memories will certainly make something useful out of what you observe in nature for fun, whether it’s a publishable research project or some extra emotional attachment helping you to find satisfaction and motivation.  Indeed, my paper in GEO: Geography and Environment, and this blog post, were written just for fun and have helped me to recognise how important natural history is for my enjoyment of my job.

Meredith Root-Bernstein is a postdoctoral researcher in the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) project, based in the Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University, Denmark

Uneven geographies of openness and information

By Helen Pallett (University of East Anglia, UK)

Open access to information and data appears to be a cause which has found its moment, with governments, businesses, NGOs and academics queuing up to ratify open access commitments and extoll its virtues. It has variously been heralded as a means of rejuvenating democracy, reforming corrupt institutions, holding big business and business-dealings to account, improving the quality of scientific data available, removing academics from their ivory towers, and changing relationships between publishers, academic journals and authors.

These arguments for the opening up of data and information now seem uncontroversial and have few serious detractors. However, an emerging body of work demonstrates that to take the geographies of information seriously is to add a significant but often-overlooked angle on debates in academia and policy on open access and open data. This is what Mark Graham, Stefano De Sabbata and Matthew A. Zook have done in their recent paper in Geo, ‘Towards a study of information geographies’.

In this paper the authors focus on the different internet-based platforms through which geographic information itself is mediated, hosted and delivered. The potential of the internet and related technologies to facilitate the wide sharing, distribution and processing of information has of course been at the centre of arguments for and models of open data, and even open innovation or open government. Whilst the transformative power of platforms like Wikipedia and OpenStreetMap are evident, the paper draws attention to their uneven geographies in a number of ways.

At a very basic level, geographies of internet access are uneven – less than 20% of the population in countries like India, Tanzania and Guatemala are internet users. But there are also clear barriers to participation in creating and contributing to geographic information platforms which transcend questions of who is connected to the internet, and there are important geographic patterns in what gets represented and what is overlooked. For example, domain names of websites are overwhelmingly located in Europe and North America, and similar patterns are found in the numbers of people contributing information to or coding these platforms such as Wikipedia or Geonames. This geography of participation also has implications for representation, with platforms like OpenStreetMap displaying much denser geographic information for locations in Japan, Europe and North America, as compared to locations in Africa, Australia and much of South America.

 

InfoGeo_Figure_03_DomainNames

Distribution of domain names by country. From Graham et al. (2015).

 

The authors have demonstrated that information has geographies in the way that it is produced, presented and distributed, far from flowing with ease across space. This sounds a note of caution with regards to claims about the democratising and empowering potential of platforms aiming to open up information, including attempts to facilitate access to scientific data, academic papers, and government data. It suggests that enabling open access to information at this general level can only do so much, without addressing existing highly uneven geographies of access to the infrastructures and platforms hosting and transmitting this information. Furthermore, there are not only uneven geographies of access to consider, but also uneven geographies of participation and representation which serve to further shape and limit the data and information which is available to us.

Helen Pallett is a Senior Research Associate in the Science, Society & Sustainability group at the University of East Anglia.

Learning from guano: In search of a paleo-seabird proxy

By Jessica Conroy (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, USA)

Take a vacation to the Galápagos Islands and you’re bound to see some of the archipelago’s most colorful denizens perched on guano-splashed basalt rocks, or a sweet ball of puffy white feathers sitting patiently in her nest, waiting for breakfast.

Seabirds like the red-footed and blue-footed booby are some of the unique inhabitants of the Galápagos. Apart from being photogenic, they are impressive animals, with amazing hunting abilities, sometimes flying over 100 km away from their nesting sites in search of food.

Conroy image

A Genovesa red-footed booby. Credit: Jonathan Overpeck

Seabirds are also harbingers of the large changes sweeping the world ocean. A study of long-term seabird populations shows many species are declining.  Recent research also points to longer-term changes in some seabird populations relative to the last several millennia, likely related to recent human exploitation of the marine ecosystem.

Natural climate and ocean variability can also affect seabird populations. In the tropical Pacific, many species of seabirds suffer the effects of interannual El Niño events, which influences the abundance of seabird prey by altering ocean properties such as temperature and nutrient availability. In the Galápagos, blue-footed booby populations are decreasing, perhaps due to shifts in climate that operate over decades.

It is important to define the natural baseline of these varying populations. In order to place recent changes in a long-term context, scientists must establish the range of natural ups and downs in seabird populations prior to recent changes. But unfortunately, there are very little long-term seabird population data.

Lake sediments have long offered a way to tell us something about past environments– how much it rained, or variations in past temperatures. But, in the right setting, could lake sediments tell us something about seabirds? We thought one such lake may have an interesting story to tell.

Genovesa Island is a small, uninhabited island in the northeastern part of the Galápagos. With no surface water, it is not a tempting site for human settlement; Darwin did not even make it here. But, it is home to thousands of red-footed boobies and lesser numbers of great frigatebirds. According to the only estimate of the island’s bird population in the scientific literature, it is home to the largest colony of red-footed boobies in the world. The birds nest across the island, including the steep crater walls at the center of the island, which shelter a very inaccessible (to humans) crater lake.

The Genovesa seabirds produce large quantities of guano. The crater is streaked in white, and the air has an acrid smell. Some of this guano makes it into the lake, either directly, or by washing in during rainy periods. We hypothesized that there would be a geochemical signal of this guano archived in the lake sediments. One candidate for a paleo-guano proxy was the stable isotopic composition of nitrogen in lake organic matter. The heavier, less abundant stable isotope of nitrogen, 15N, is preferentially sequestered in organisms, with animals higher on the food web containing more 15N relative to 14N. As seabirds sit high on the food web, they, and their guano, have a distinctly high 15N/14N ratio—much higher than the 15N/14N values related to other processes and organisms that are typically found in lake sediments.

We measured 15N/14N in organic matter in Genovesa lake sediments and guano samples. The data, expressed in delta notation, d15N, where the 15N/14N ratio is normalized to the ratio of 15N/14N in air, showed high values in both guano samples and in the sediments, supporting a geochemical signature of seabird presence in the sediment. Although pretty cool, this result has been observed before, in arctic seabird ponds. The most interesting aspect of our study was the variability in d15N values over time.

We found that higher d15N values, which we interpreted as indicating increased seabird activity on Genovesa, coincided with decadal changes in the counts of anchovies and sardines in the eastern Pacific. With more of these fish in the region, d15N was higher, suggesting more seabird activity on the island.  An abrupt increase in d15N also occurred around 1830 AD, right when ocean sediment cores off the coast of Peru and Chile showed increased ocean productivity and nutrients. Another abrupt shift occurred in the mid 1960s. Thus, seabird activity has been highly variable at Genovesa over the last 400 years, increasing and decreasing in concert with decadal and abrupt changes in the ocean environment.

What do these results imply about the seabirds living on Genovesa? They seem to be doing ok, at least in context of last 400 years. Although this year’s monster El Niño event may have a negative impact on seabirds elsewhere in the Galápagos, past observations and our guano proxy suggest Genovesa seabirds don’t seem to feel El Niño events the same way.  But a recent  increase in decade-to-decade ups and downs in the d15N guano proxy record suggests that perhaps Genovesa seabirds are becoming more sensitive to regional ocean and climate changes on the decadal timescale. Or, there may have been a strengthening of climate change on the decadal timescale in this region during the 20th century. We hope to extend our lake sediment record deeper into the past and explore more potential guano indicators in order to find out.

About the author:

Jessica Conroy is an assistant professor in the Departments of Geology and Plant Biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Open for collaboration

This week (Oct 19th-25th) is Open Access Week, with the theme of ‘Open for Collaboration’. Open Access Week is organised by SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, and this year’s theme aims to inspire conversations about how cooperation between stakeholders in the academic enterprise can lead to new forms of collaboration – whether that’s collaboration in research, collaboration in new publishing platforms, or collaboration between academic and policy communities in discussions about how open-access can become the new norm in scholarly publishing.

Here at Geo we are engaged in all of these types of collaboration, and we hope that our blog can become a springboard for new working relationships of all kinds.

In the first instance, the blog can offer authors and readers of our journal the opportunity to reach out to wider audiences. We are publishing blog posts alongside published Geo articles, which can be a great way of drawing attention to the topical relevance of an article, of situating it within wider scientific, political, environmental or cultural debates, or of telling some of the story behind the research which might not have made it into the journal article itself.

Evidence is growing that journal articles which are open access and which are publicised through social media such as blogs and Twitter can receive a greater readership which in turn can lead to more citations.[1] With our blog and social media presence, Geo can help scholars to take advantage of these new routes to wider research engagement (find us on Twitter and Facebook).

We also believe that these new opportunities can help develop connections which, in time, may lead to important new collaborative ventures. While we invite journal authors to comment on their own published papers, we often also seek out comments from interested readers – see for example the posts published along with Sabina Leonelli and colleagues’ paper on encouraging open science (see here and here), or Werner Krauss’ commentary on Mike Hulme’s piece on climate and culture. In this way, we hope that the Geo blog can spark new intellectual conversations and connections, opening up space for new collaborative relationships.

We hope that the Geo blog can also become a site for debating the shifting policy environment of open-access publishing. As open access becomes a key requirement in research assessment exercises in the UK for example, new questions are emerging about how access to open access – through the availability of resources to fund ‘gold’ open access publishing – is distributed across the academic landscape. We’re keen to encourage reflection on these and other issues, so if you have ideas for a post, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Academia is inherently a collaborative enterprise – not just in the shape of research teams and multi-author publications, but in the relationships between individuals, institutions and policies, between researchers and the ‘subjects’ of their research, and in the deep well of knowledge from which we all draw in building our arguments and research programmes (for an example of this collaborative landscape, see this blog post on crowd-sourced geographic information). In making new knowledge, we collaborate with those who have gone before us, and with a diversity of people around us. Journals like Geo are part of this story of changing collaborative relationships within and beyond the academy, and we hope the blog can be a place to tell this story in new and exciting ways.

[1] See for example Gunther Eysenbach, ‘Can Tweets Predict Citations? Metrics of Social Impact Based on Twitter and Correlation with Traditional Metrics of Scientific Impact.’, Journal of Medical Internet Research, 13, 4 (2011); Melissa Terras, ‘The Impact of Social Media on the Dissemination of Research: Results of an Experiment’, Journal of Digital Humanities, 1, 3 (2012).

Being philosophical about crowdsourced geographic information

By Renée Sieber (McGill University, Canada) and Muki Haklay (University College London, UK)

Our recent paper, The epistemology(s) of volunteered geographic information: a critique, started from a discussion we had about changes within the geographic information science (GIScience) research communities over the past two decades. We’ve both been working in the area of participatory geographic information systems (GIS) and critical studies of geographic information science (GIScience) since the late 1990s, where we engaged with people from all walks of life with the information that is available in GIS. Many times we’d work together with people to create new geographic information and maps. Our goal was to help reflect their point of view of the world and their knowledge about local conditions, not always aim for universal rules and principles. For example, the image below is from a discussion with the community in Hackney Wick, London, where individuals collaborated to ensure the information to be captured represented their views on the area and its future, in light of the Olympic works that happened on their doorstep. The GIScience research community, by contrast, emphasizes quantitative modelling and universal rules about geographic information (exemplified by frequent mentioning of Tobler’s first law of Geography). The GIScience research community was not especially welcoming of qualitative, participatory mapping efforts, leaving these efforts mostly in the margins of the discipline.

Hackney mapping

Participatory Mapping in Hackney Wick, London, 2007

Around 2005, researchers in GIScience started to notice that when people used their Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to record where they took pictures or used online mapping apps to make their own maps, they were generating a new kind of geographic information. Once projects like OpenStreetMap and other user-generated geographic information came to the scene, the early hostility evaporated and volunteered geographic information (VGI) or crowdsourced geographic information was embraced as a valid, valuable and useful source of information for GIScience research. More importantly, VGI became an acceptable research subject, with subjects like how to assess quality and what motivates people to contribute.

This about-face was puzzling and we felt that it justified an investigation of the concepts and ideas that allowed that to happen. Why did VGI become part of the “truth” in GIScience? In philosophical language, the questions ‘where does knowledge come from? how was it created? What is the meaning and truth of knowledge?’ is known as epistemology and our paper evolved into an exploration of the epistemology, or more accurately the multiple epistemologies, which are inherent in VGI. It’s easy to make the case that VGI is a new way of knowing the world, with (1) its potential to disrupt existing practices (e.g. the way OpenStreetMap provide alternative to official maps as shown in the image below) and (2) the way VGI both constrains contributions (e.g., 140 chars) and opens contributions (e.g., with its ease of user interface; with its multimedia offerings). VGI affords a new epistemology, a new way of knowing geography, of knowing place. Rather than observing a way of knowing, we were interested in what researchers thought was the epistemology of VGI. They were building it in real-time and attempting to ensure it conformed to existing ways of knowing. An analog would be: instead of knowing a religion from the inside, you construct your conception of it, with your own assumptions and biases, while you are on the outside. We argue that construction was occurring with VGI.

mapping

OpenStreetMap mapping party (Nono photos)

We likewise were interested in the way that long-standing critics of mapping technologies would respond to new sources of data and new platforms for that data. Criticism tends to be grounded in the structuralist works of Michel Foucault on power and how it is influenced by wider societal structures. Critics extended traditional notions of volunteerism and empowerment to VGI, without necessarily examining whether or not these were applicable to the new ‘ecosystem’ of geospatial apps companies, code and data. We also were curious why the critiques focussed on the software platforms used to generate the data (e.g., Twitter) instead of the data themselves (tweets). It was as if the platforms used to create and share VGI are embedded in various socio-political and economic configurations. However, the data were innocent of association with the assemblages. Lastly, we saw an unconscious shift in the Critical GIS/GIScience field from the collective to the personal. Historically, in the wider field of human geography, when we thought of civil society mapping together by using technology, we looked at collective activities like counter-mapping (e.g., a community fights an extension to airport runway by conducting a spatial analysis to demonstrate the adverse impacts of noise or pollution to the surrounding geography). We believe the shift occurred because Critical GIS scholars were never comfortable with community and consensus-based action in the first place. In hindsight, it probably is easier to critique the (individual) emancipatory potential as opposed to the (collective) empowerment potential of the technology. Moreover, Critical GIS researchers have shifted their attention away from geographic information systems towards the software stack of geospatial software and geosocial media, which raises question about what is considered under this term. For all of these reasons and more we decided to investigate the “world building” from both the instrumentalist scientists and from their critics.

We do use some philosophical framing–Borgmann has a great idea called the device paradigm–to analyse what is happening, and we hope that the paper will contribute to the debate in the critical studies of geographical information beyond the confines of GIScience to human geography more broadly.

About the authors:

Renée E. Sieber is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and the School of Environment at McGill University. Muki Haklay is Professor of Geographical Information Science in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering at University College London. 

A response to Mike Hulme’s “Climate and its changes: a cultural appraisal”

By Werner Krauss, University of Hamburg, Germany

A cultural appraisal of climate and its changes is more than only adding social sciences and humanities to climate research; it fundamentally changes the concept of climate change and, as a consequence, the nature of climate politics. For a long time, culture has been considered as the object of analysis for social sciences as their contribution to successfully implementing science-based climate policies. But Mike Hulme (2015) reminds us in a friendly fashion that climate is more than the statistics of average weather or a system of interconnected spheres and global thresholds. For him, climate is first and foremost an idea that helps to stabilise the relationships between cultures and weather, with climate change as the latest step in the cultural evolution of this idea. His approach fundamentally differs from the conception of global climate politics framed by planetary boundaries and aiming at stabilising climate at 2-or less degrees above preindustrial levels; his cultural appraisal suggests an alternative to the regime of experts and the fantasies about the magic of big data and technological solutions.

The anthropologist Melissa Leach once coined in an interview with the Guardian (2007) the drastic term “bullshit research”. She conducted ethnographic research in hot spots of environmental and climate change in Africa, and there the reality she encountered differed profoundly from scientific scenarios. Explaining the causes of drought, of migration or conflict as a result of climate change was more often than not plain wrong; the causes were complex, the scientific attributions were prematurely drawn from model calculations and not based on empirical evidence. Together with James Fairhead, in their book Misreading Landscapes (1996), they documented how scientists and environmentalists had interpreted desertification in the savannah as a result of deforestation by the indigenous population; in reality, it was indigenous people who had planted the existing trees to fight desertification. This case is not unique, and in many case studies, ethnographers find complex realities instead of simple and mono-dimensional explanations like water- or climate-wars.

While Mike Hulme’s article focuses on making a general argument for introducing culture into the debate about a changing climate, there remains the question of what a no-bullshit research agenda might look like. I doubt that “culture” is an appropriate entity for research; while it makes sense to say that “other cultures” have differing concepts of the culture-weather nexus from our “modern” ones, it is impossible to single out specific cultures as consistent and autonomous, even less to delineate a geographical space identical with cultures (even though in climate research, outdated conceptions like culture areas or climate determinism come to life again). But how to conduct climate research and avoid the pitfalls of current top-down conceptions?

In his article, Mike Hulme introduces the concept of landscape to illustrate the “dyad of climate-culture”. Landscapes are far more than visual or aesthetic representations, nor are they static formations frozen in time and space. Instead, they are social practices and designate the process of making space. They are the result of the interaction of nature, culture and history, but also of symbols, perceptions and imaginaries; or, in the terms of Latour’s actor-network-theory, they are networks animated by human and non-human interactions. It is here where we can observe and critically analyse the transition from land- into climate-scapes, with climate politics as one of the main drivers. Landscapes are political assemblies where matters of concern are decided, such as questions concerning property, access to land or weather-related issues like coastal protection or the transition of former rural areas into emerging energy landscapes. To manage landscapes successfully needs the consent of those who inhabit, shape and administer them; only then, climate change indeed means the “re-negotiation of cultural relationships between humans and their changing weather”, and climate change finally becomes an emergent form of life (Callison 2014).

Thus, Mike Hulme indeed offers an approach to climate change that profoundly differs from the current science-based understanding. There is more to his cultural appraisal than simply adding social sciences and humanities to climate science; the question is about differing ideas of governance, of democracy and about power relations, inside science and in the relation between science, politics and society. Conflicts and frictions are unavoidable where expert regimes rub with societies and cultures; instead of dreaming the impossible dream of stabilizing climate, a cultural appraisal of climate offers insight into the potential of specific landscapes to deal with changing climates.

About the author:

Werner Krauss is currently a fellow at the Cluster of Excellence “CliSAP” (Integrated Climate System Analysis and Prediction), University of Hamburg, project “Understanding science in interaction” (USI). As a cultural anthropologist, his main focus of research is on human-environment relationships, the anthropology of landscapes and heritage, and climate change. He is an editor of the climate blog Die Klimazwiebel.

References:

Callison, Candis (2014) How Climate Change Comes to Matter: the Communal Life of Facts. Duke University Press.

Fairhead, J. and M. Leach (1996) Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-Savanna Mosaic. Cambridge University Press.

The Guardian (2007) Melissa Leach: The Village Voice. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2007/jul/17/highereducationprofile.academicexperts (accessed 07/17/2015).

Hulme, Mike (2015) Climate and its changes: a cultural appraisalGeo: Geography and Environment, doi: 10.1002/geo2.5

Response to Leonelli et al (2015): Thinking About “Open” Science

By James Porter, University of Leeds, UK

As a research community we’re being urged to “open” science up like never before. Whether it’s our research results, methods used to make sense of them, or even the underlying raw data itself, everything we do should be made freely and easily accessible to the widest variety of people possible, in the widest variety of ways. Already great strides have been made. As Leonelli et al (2015) note, we’ve seen the push towards “open” access of published research results; “open” data deposited in repositories; and “open” source licenses for research materials (e.g. codes, models etc). All of this edges us closer to the ethos behind “open” science or Science 2.0. That is, to encourage greater equality, widen participation, and stimulate innovation.

Indeed, “open” science has already been heralded as a success. It’s helped scientists find answers to decade old problems. Scientists at the University of Washington struggling to discover the structure of a protein that helps HIV multiply, turned to developers of Foldit, for example. As an online game, players are asked to rearrange the protein to find its most stable configuration, likely to be it’s natural form. Within three weeks over 57,000 players had arrived at an answer, which was published in Nature Structural. None of this would have been possible if that research had remained hidden from public view behind journal subscriptions or locked away in our ivory towers.

It’s somewhat ironic, then, that we’re being asked to make things “open” yet constantly reminded to refrain from sharing our findings prematurely. This is due in no small part to a prevailing institutional culture of publish or perish (i.e. REF); the creep to commercialise science and lockdown intellectual property or block rivals (e.g. OncoMouse); and concerns over allowing others to cast doubt or breed misunderstandings (i.e. UEA leaked emails). How science is opened up so that it’s usable and useful, not just available; who should be doing it – early career researchers or established professors; and when research is released – before/after publication; are all tricky questions that researchers must grapple with today. “Sticks” and “carrots”, as Leonelli et al (2015) argue, may incentivise “open” science but it’s unlikely to fully succeed unless the underlying institutional and social norms/values governing research are addressed as well. Many of these institutional and epistemic norms touch on the changing spaces of science engaged by geographers.

The UK government, for instance, has set the Met Office on a course for “open” science. In a pointed rebuttal to critics who claim that it has stifled innovation through a monopoly over meteorological and climate data, the Met Office is set to “open” things up. The once fine distinction between data used for non-commercial purposes and commercial ones is no more. Today, a new policy breaks data into one of three categories (open, research and managed), which dictates who can access it and what they can do with it (not everyone can be trusted, apparently). Making the data fit into these categories ignores its hybrid, contested, and evolving nature, where it may start life as one thing but over time change as more things are added. Efforts to make the data manageable not only reflect politics to do with their construction and circulation but also reflect the tension faced by the Met Office to give away and make money from its data/services.

Much of the logic behind the “open” science movement shares similarities with neoliberal thinking. Will making raw data freely available via repositories reduce inequalities between the data-rich and data-poor, or simply allow those with the resources, capacity and infrastructures to increase them? Will the ability to reproduce, verify, and challenge research results bolster the status of science, a la Robert Merton, or make it harder to differentiate rigorous science from junk science, making it easier to sell for PR purposes? And does opening up research results, data and materials, constitute a valuable endeavour in itself, or one that’s only realisable when equipped with the right expertise?

Yes “open” science is certainly welcome in exposing a whole raft of cultural practices (and politics) we take for granted in academia today and helps us respond to the needs of the twentieth-first century. But before we fully embrace “open” science we need to think critically about its politics. Critical scholars have told us time and again how neoliberalism worsen inequalities, reduces participation, and restricts innovation to only marketable products/services. We need to ask for “whom” is science being opened, how “democratic” is that process, and of course what deep-seated politics are being advanced as things get opened-up? These are issues Leonelli has raised in relation to biology in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, but tracing these unfolding dynamics in relation to geographical data and in open access journals like Geo is up to all of us.

About the author: 

Dr James Porter is a Research Fellow in the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds. James’ work specialises in how institutional politics shapes the production, and in turn, use of environmental knowledge for policy, through the lens of science and technology studies (STS) and the management of risk/uncertainty.

References:

Leonelli, S. et al. (2015) Sticks and Carrots: Encouraging Open Science at its sourceGeo: Geography and Environment, doi: 10.1002/geo2.2.