Global Cooperation

Can science be more equitable so that everyone enjoys the benefits? Open science is the answer

This image shows a science lab, depicting the need for open science

Open science will speed up scientific development for all. Image: Unsplash/Lars Kienle

Shamila Nair-Bedouelle
Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, UNESCO
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  • From 8 to 10 February 2023, policy-makers, researchers, scholars, librarians, publishers and others are meeting in New York at the third United Nations Open Science Conference.
  • Discussions will focus on how open science can accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • UNESCO is actively guiding a global experiment in open science that has attracted millions of volunteers and is open to all; it is due to assess its impact in three years' time.

From 8 to 10 February 2023, policy-makers, researchers, scholars, librarians, publishers and others are meeting in New York at the third United Nations Open Science Conference to discuss how open science can accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

This conference is organized by the Dag Hammarskjöld Library in collaboration with UNESCO and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. At the heart of its discussions will be a burning question: how can we make the practice of science more equitable and more transparent to ensure that everyone enjoys the benefits?

What a paradox: climate change and biodiversity loss are considered existential challenges for humanity, yet over 60% of research articles published over the past decade on the topic of climate change and nearly 50% of those related to biodiversity are still locked behind paywalls.

Despite the best intentions of individual researchers and institutions, most new knowledge is available to a minority of readers and the scientific process itself is often opaque. Investment in research infrastructure, research funding processes and research prioritisation are all masked within boundaries set by disciplines or institutional and national practices, with limited transparency and engagement.

And yet, the right to access science and its benefits was set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. More than 70 years on, science is still struggling to meet its social contract. A growing number of scientists and non-scientists now acknowledge that this barrier is not only holding back individual scientists, it is also holding back scientific progress – and the vital solutions we need to tackle climate change, biodiversity loss, health pandemics and a whole host of other pressing challenges. These non-scientists and scientists, who come from all over the world, have endorsed the idea of a global transition to open science.

The global framework is a game-changer

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, has observed that: “Today, closed science models no longer work because they amplify inequalities between countries and researchers and because they only make scientific progress available to a minority." She made this point in a Joint Appeal for Open Science with UNESCO, the World Health Organization and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on 27 October 2020.

In 2020 – at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – she launched an ambitious global effort to establish the Recommendation on Open Science, the first international framework on open science. This was adopted by 193 member states in November 2021.

This UNESCO Recommendation defines the norms, values, principles and actions for achieving open science for all. Before the Recommendation, there was no universal definition of open science and standards existed only at regional, national or institutional levels. Now, we have a shared framework and a set of actions to take across the four key pillars of openness: open scientific knowledge; open science infrastructures; open engagement of societal actors; and, open dialogue with other knowledge systems.

Open science means opening up among scientists, across borders, between disciplines and beyond single communities.

Bringing this vision to reality requires coordinated efforts by all. To support these efforts, UNESCO launched in December 2022 its Open Science Toolkit, a collection of resources designed to support the implementation of the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science.

Open science must be an accelerator of inclusion and equality

Of course, open science has real costs, just like standard science. Ensuring that those costs are not passed onto marginalised scientists and do not disproportionately affect low-resource regions will require extra attention. Yet, none of those costs are insurmountable, particularly when funds are redirected from closed to open scientific practices.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that the scientific community can come together and beat paywalls to share science. Several institutions, major publishers and governments acted swiftly to share publications, databases, methods and tools. The Covid-19 pandemic changed the global scientific landscape, with some 85% of COVID-19-related articles being available in open access. This is a radical difference from the 70% of all scientific publications published in the last decade that still lie behind some kind of paywall.

If science is only opened in response to a crisis, the question becomes: whose crisis?

The open science movement must also take into account the needs of the Global South and consider the rhythm of development of low-income countries, to avoid repeating the mistakes of traditional scientific practices.

Some of the needs are technical. Open science infrastructure bolsters access to the tools and information needed to conduct science. Addressing the digital gap remains a key challenge to achieving a truly open, accessible global science system.

Other needs are cultural. At its best, open science promotes inclusion and the exchange of scholarly knowledge from traditionally underrepresented or excluded groups. The collaborative and inclusive characteristics of open science allow new social actors to engage in the scientific process, thus contributing to the democratisation of knowledge, fighting misinformation and disinformation, addressing existing systemic inequalities and guiding scientific work towards solving problems of social importance.

Collaboration is essential for a healthy global system of open science

Today, UNESCO is actively guiding a global experiment that has attracted millions of volunteers. It is truly open to all. Countries that adopted the UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science just over a year ago also committed, at the time, to reporting on their progress. In three years’ time, we shall have a global rendezvous at UNESCO to see whether we have used open science to bring about real change.

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