Revisiting the effects of climate change on salamander body size: the role of natural history collections

Our recent paper, The relationship between climate and adult body size in redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus), found that salamanders were larger in warmer parts of their range. We also found that that body size increased significantly in places where the climate had become hotter and drier.


Image credit: Brian Gratwicke

Small-bodied lungless salamanders breathe through their skin, and tend to come to forage on the surface in cool, damp conditions associated with spring and fall, which is the best time to find them. They have thrived in the cool, temperate climate of the Appalachian Mountains, making this region a global hotspot for salamander diversity. Because of their preference for cool, damp environments, salamander biologists worry that predictions of warmer climates and more intense rainfall events and longer dry spells in between may be bad news for these distinctive creatures.

Several studies using museum specimens found that salamanders in warmer areas have larger bodies, but one recent study suggested that salamanders were actually shrinking in response to climate change. Subsequent papers have dwelled on the challenges of using museum specimens to draw these types of conclusions, but none re-examined the actual phenomenon of the shrinking salamanders. We designed a new study to revisit the question using museum specimens in a way that accounts for some of the previous limitations.

We selected redback salamanders, which are one of the most abundant vertebrates both by number and biomass in forests in the Eastern United States. One classic study by Thomas Burton and Gene Likens at Hubbard Brook Forest in New Hampshire found densities of about 3,000 salamanders per hectare, mostly redbacks.  This wide-ranging, abundant species is also very well represented in museum collections. About 70,000 redback specimens are held in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, mostly collected between 1950 and 2000.


A Redback salamander Plethodon cinereus specimen at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Image by Brian Gratwicke

A collection of this size allowed us to pre-emptively select our comparison groups in a way that would eliminate sampling bias, maintain large sample sizes and maximize our power to answer the question.  We corrected our samples for potential sources of sampling bias including seasonal collection bias and potential destructive sampling bias. We found that redback salamander body size actually increased 1.8% in the places that had warmed significantly. Our observations do not really shed any light on whether climate-change is a potential threat to redback salamanders, but there does appear to be a measurable effect on the species.

The nature and culture surrounding natural history collections is changing, and very few redback salamander specimens were lodged after the year 2000, restricting the time period we could analyze. This likely is a product both of the ethics debate surrounding indiscriminate collecting, and the growing popularity of new citizen science tools like iNaturalist which create photographic specimens in publicly accessible databases with critical collection information. We were able to use citizen-science databases like the Maryland Herp Atlas  and iNaturalist to verify that the salamanders are still common in all the counties that have warmed significantly, but body size data were not available. We actively support and participate in these non-destructive efforts, but view them as complimentary to well-curated natural history specimens, rather than a substitute.

Brian Gratwicke is a biologist at the National Zoo’s Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, USA

Multiple stressors and ecological surprises

The expanding global human population, now about 7.5 billion, is increasing the pressure that we as a species put on the environment.  2016 was the warmest year ever recorded, and temperature records continue to be exceeded. Each year, more natural ecosystems are lost to dam construction, deforestation and urbanisation. Rates of species invasion are increasing, and pollution events continue to pressure native wildlife. Many ecosystems are now threatened simultaneously by these multiple human-caused stressors, yet we still know very little about their combined interactive impacts.

In our paper in Geo (Linking key environmental stressors with the delivery of provisioning ecosystem services in the freshwaters of southern Africa) we review the impacts of multiple stressors on ecosystem services in freshwater ecosystems in southern Africa (e.g. the Okavango Delta; see photo). We chose these systems because freshwaters contribute disproportionately to ecosystem services despite covering less than 1% of the earth’s surface. Freshwater systems are also especially vulnerable to environmental stressors and over exploitation, with water and fish protein growing in importance as commodities, and average species population declines since 1970 estimated at 81% (WWF Living Planet Report, 2016). Communities in southern Africa rely on freshwater ecosystems for critically important provisioning services, such as drinking water and food (e.g. inland fisheries)


The Okavango Delta

We found evidence that water resources for drinking, agriculture, sanitation and power are declining because of both climate and land use change. In some areas, fish production increased because of dam construction or species invasions, but these stressors can have negative impacts elsewhere. Evidence also suggests that stressors can interact to alter one another’s impacts or promote the proliferation of further stressors.

Multiple stressors often cause impacts which are hard to predict because of both complex interactions between the stressors themselves, and interactions within communities (such as those between species in a food web). These unpredictable impacts have been termed ‘ecological surprises’ and global analyses indicate that they are very common (e.g. This creates problems for decision makers when prioritising which stressors to manage or control, especially when it comes to the supply of the goods and services which we rely on from natural ecosystems.

We provide a framework to categorise multiple stressor effects on ecosystem services where they can either be additive (i.e. predictable and the sum of their independent effects) or four different types of non-additive ecological surprises.  For instance, nutrient enrichment in Lake Victoria (because of high nutrient inputs from the surrounding catchment) causes low oxygen levels, killing fish (Photo 2). At the same time the nutrients promote growth of invasive aquatic plants (water hyacinth) causing a successive and synergistic multi-stressor interaction whereby the increase in plant biomass triggers further fish kills in the lake. In addition, the introduction of non-native fish (Nile perch) caused a dramatic decline in native fish biodiversity but boosted the overall fishery catch in the lake, benefiting the surrounding populations (see figure below).



With the growing population, it is becoming difficult to protect biodiversity and rely on our planet’s natural ecosystems for food and water security. Multiple stressors are causing a downward spiral, where our use of ecosystem services threatens the environment and therefore impairs the delivery of these services for future generations.  We need more research into multiple stressors and ecological surprises, and much more needs to be done to reduce the impact that humans have on the environment.

Michelle Jackson is a Researcher at Imperial College London. 

Opening-up (to) the politics of Anthropocene science

A group of scientists working for the International Commission on Stratigraphy recently recommended that the start of the Anthropocene epoch, an age defined by human impacts on the environment, be set at 1950. The concept of the Anthropocene has produced wide-ranging debates across the natural and social sciences. Here, Johannes Lundershausen , PhD candidate at the Tübingen Centre for Ethics, reflects on a recent dialogue in Geo between Mark Maslin and Andrew Barry

Geo: Geography and Environment recently published and thus fostered a timely dialogue between scientists researching the Anthropocene and scholars in science studies reflecting on the practice of this research (Barry and Maslin, 2016). The interlocutors in the published debate are physical geographer Mark Maslin, who has been actively involved in controversial debates between different research groups about the inception of the Anthropocene (Lewis and Maslin, 2015a), and human geographer Andrew Barry (both from University College London).

The starting point of their discussion is that the politics of the Anthropocene do not just relate to environmental governance but also to the ways in which this Epoch is formally defined by geoscientists. They highlight their disagreement about desirable interactions between the ‘formal’ geo-scientific assessment of the Anthropocene and the ‘informal’ engagements of social scientists with the concept. Whereas Mark Maslin holds that these academic realms should debate the Anthropocene in their own terms, Andrew Barry considers closer collaboration between disciplines essential to the study of the Anthropocene.

Copyright Smudge Studio

This difference is intriguing particularly because Maslin and Barry ostensibly agree on the need to ‘open up the geo-scientific debate about the Anthropocene to the social sciences’ and Barry acknowledges that Maslin has taken a step in this direction, for example in  a publication that he co-authored with UCL colleague Simon Lewis (2015b). Nevertheless, Maslin and Barry arguably mean different things when they talk about this interdisciplinary openness.

When prompted, Maslin draws a picture of interdisciplinarity in which social and natural science debates run parallel to each other. Social sciences, from this perspective, are expected to adapt to the requirements of the natural sciences in order to inform the latter about the consequences of their work as well as the social causes of environmental changes. Geoscientists, meanwhile, ‘should not be distracted by the […] valid discussions on the history and politics’ of the Anthropocene (p. 6). This way of ‘opening-up’ is reminiscent of the ‘subordination-service mode’ of interdisciplinarity that Barry and colleagues defined in a seminal paper in 2008 (Barry et al., 2008).

Barry himself comes closer to an ‘agonistic-antagonistic mode’ of interdisciplinarity in which the epistemological and ontological assumptions of established disciplines are challenged. He proposes a collaboration between the social and the geo-sciences that breaks with the existing disciplinary divisions of labour and involves the social sciences directly in the assessment of the merits of different proposals for an Anthropocene inception.

These two approaches, however, are more than different visions of interdisciplinarity. They also make for different ways of dealing with the topic of the debate, i.e. the politics of the Anthropocene, especially as they relate to geo-scientific definitions of the term. For Barry, interdisciplinarity can foster new conceptualisations of the role of politics in the geo-sciences and, reciprocally, the role of the geological in historical and political sciences; whereas for Maslin, interdisciplinary collaboration can or should not affect the constitution of geo-scientific practice.

Ultimately, it could be argued, the two approaches to interdisciplinarity are equipped to deal with very different conceptions of politics in the geo-sciences in particular, and in science more generally. Although Maslin recognizes politics in the interpretation and application of official criteria for establishing formal geological units, these politics are rather different from those that Barry refers to when he highlights the inherently political nature of, for example, applying scientific standards in practice, defining the scope of scientific controversies or deciding which parties are legitimately involved in such controversies (p. 3). Maslin views science as an ideally value-free endeavour in which clearly defined rules and epistemic standards guide the interpretation of data. This ideal is particularly apparent in his criticism of the members of the Anthropocene Working Group, who, he alleges, have been ‘swayed by political considerations’ in their interpretation of stratigraphic evidence (p. 4). Instead of following the remit of their work and keeping politics out of the geo-scientific definition of the Anthropocene, Maslin contends, they have acted as an advocacy group for a post-1945 inception of the Anthropocene.

This difference between Maslin’s ideal of value-free science and Barry’s insistence on the social and historical contingency of scientific practice raises questions about the initially proclaimed agreement of the two interlocutors about the existence of politics in Anthropocene geo-science. One particularly interesting question concerning this emerging disagreement is how to practically deal with social values in scientific practice (including, amongst others, political ones).

Scientists who operate under the ideal of value-free science tend to see social values in scientific practice as a threat to scientific integrity that opens the door to a politicisation of science. But in geo-scientific research on the Anthropocene, as Barry argues, scientific evaluations are underdetermined by evidence (and, I would add, also by epistemic values). In this situation, social values do not necessarily compete with geo-scientific evidence but they can work to complement the available geological evidence by guiding its interpretation and judging its power to support a given proposal for the inception of the Anthropocene.

Involving social scientists in geo-scientific debates, as suggested by Barry, might be a method of operationalising this indirect role of social values in Anthropocene science. I would argue that Maslin’s proposal to adopt public engagement strategies from climatologists, on the other hand, will not suffice to deal with the politics in Anthropocene science (cf. Beck, 2012), nor will his appeal reference to scientific objectivity, which other researchers, who he accuses of practicing politicised geo-science, equally claim for themselves (Zalasiewicz et al., 2015). Opening up to the idea of an appropriate place for social values in geo-scientific practice and the possibility of an interdisciplinary exchange that produces different scientific practices, arguably holds more potential to deal with the ‘mask[ed][…] political views’ (p. 9) and the ‘political ramifications’ (p. 4) that Maslin acknowledges. The question remains as to whether there are ways to do this while maintaining the ‘independence and credibility’ of geo-scientists (p.6) that Maslin calls for. Debates such as this, between physical and social scientists, are vital ways of moving this conversation forward.

Johannes Lundershausen is a PhD candidate at the Tübingen Centre for Ethics.

Barry A, Born G and Weszkalnys G (2008) Logics of interdisciplinarity. Economy and Society 37(1): 20–49.

Barry A and Maslin M (2016) The politics of the anthropocene: A dialogue. Geo: Geography and Environment 3(2): e00022

Beck S (2012) Between Tribalism and Trust: The IPCC Under the “Public Microscope”. Nature and Culture 7(2): 151–173

Lewis SL and Maslin MA (2015a) A transparent framework for defining the Anthropocene Epoch. The Anthropocene Review 2(2): 128–146

Lewis SL and Maslin MA (2015b) Defining the anthropocene. Nature 519(7542): 171–180.

Zalasiewicz J, Waters CN, Barnosky AD, Cearreta A, Edgeworth M, Ellis EC, et al. (2015) Colonization of the Americas, ‘Little Ice Age’ climate, and bomb-produced carbon: Their role in defining the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Review 2(2): 117–127

Journal metrics and linguistic hegemony

Geography is a uniquely international discipline. It is concerned with describing and explaining the world in all its infinite variety. Geographical societies and university departments can be found in all corners of the globe, and the discipline’s practitioners often build careers on internationally collaborative research focused on distant places. Why, then, is the world of geographical publishing and performance measurement so skewed towards the publishing cultures of North America and northwest Europe?

This is the question which arises from a recent paper in Geo: Geography and Environment by Michael Meadows, Ton Dietz and Christian Vandermotten. The authors note the rise and the apparent embedding of a metrics culture in higher education (see for example recent discussions about the role of metrics in the UK’s assessment exercises for research and teaching). Metrics, such as journal impact factors and personal H-index values, have not only become popular ways of trying to describe the impact of publications and their authors – they have also become key adjudicators of academic careers, with measures such as the H-index seemingly holding ever greater sway over promotion and funding decisions.

When metrics become performative, when efforts to describe a system become part of the means by which that system is run, then pre-existing hierarchies and power structures tend to get reinforced. Meadows and colleagues argue that this is particularly the case in academic geography. They point out how the key databases from which the main metrics are derived – Web of Science and Scopus – massively underrepresent research being published outside of the networks of the major commercial publishers, and in languages other than English. Using a newly developed database of geography journals developed by the International Geographical Union, they present some disturbing statistics – of the more than 200 geography journals published in China, not one appears in the international journal rankings produced by these western organisations. Of the 27 geographical journals published in Germany, fewer than ten are represented on Web of Science.  Of the 108 geography journals published worldwide in Spanish, just three appear on Web of Science.

These huge disparities in how ‘quality’ academic research is identified, measured and ranked have significant implications not only for individual career trajectories, but for the discipline as a whole. The concerns and interests of Anglophone geography will continue to dominate so long as metrics and rankings reinforce the dominance of certain publication outlets, at the risk of marginalising alternative paradigms, arguments, or ways of working. As the authors note, “ranking and the dominance of particular leading journals may undermine innovation and alternative and critical thinking” (p5).

What is to be done? The authors note a number of positive developments, including alternative, more inclusive ranking systems such as that being developed at CERES in the Netherlands (see here in PDF). Open access is certainly part of the story as well, with the authors identifying something of a ‘Latin reaction’ to Anglophonic dominance with a widespread move to online, ‘green’ open access publishing models. How to fund open access publishing is still a live question of course, with different initiatives emerging to allocate costs for ‘gold’ open access publishing between research funders, institutions, and individual authors. Geo can be considered part of this broader experimentation.

But returning to the discipline geography more specifically, the authors conclude by addressing the IGU, whose new database underpins the authors’ arguments. They urge the IGU to explore the kind of multi-lingual publishing options being innovated in settings like Conservation Biology, with the organisation’s international reach potentially making it a powerful vehicle for new efforts to promote working and publishing practices which help to break down linguistic barriers. More broadly, the article prompts geographers to reflect on how a discipline so international in reach can make its publication practices more inclusive of linguistic, cultural and intellectual diversity.

Martin Mahony is a Research Fellow in the School of Geography at the University of Nottingham. He also edits the Geo blog.

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

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.


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. (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.


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