On Openness: What’s holding back efficient collaboration on complex issues in international development?

This post was previously published on the IDS Participation, power and social change blog on 23th January 2013. 

It is high time the development research community started learning from computer scientists, who have long realised that tackling complex problems is most optimally done by distributing effort and resources. In the computing world, the term ‘Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving‘ (CDPS) refers to a system whereby, a network of independent, often geographically distant, computing devices can work together to solve a given problem.

In my research, I look at how some of these new modes of technologically-catalysed collaboration influence relationships in spheres of political contention, specifically in environments experiencing tempestuoustransitions and high degrees of uncertainty. Networked communities and the exponentially evolving information and communication technologies are increasingly providing better means for:

  • collaborative knowledge production
  • distributed problem-solving
  • flattening hierarchies of leadership and decision making.

Disciplinary islands

Development academia is cognizant that adapting to an increasingly complex world requires tapping into new, or at least unconventional, approaches to participation. There is no shortage of studies on addressing complexity, participatory knowledge creation, and technologically-facilitated collaboration in contemporary development literature. There is also plenty of innovative thinking going on, but the problem is that this thinking often seems to be happening in disciplinary islands without much interconnectedness, which is something that I have alluded to in aprevious blog post. Yet I want to highlight that the greatest limitation to the formation of such networks of collaboration is not a dearth of willingness of those concerned, but restricted access to the necessary channels of knowledge.

picture of lonely island

photo credit: Sinead Friel, creative commons license

Research behind paywalls
As much as the notion of ‘openness’ pervades contemporary discourses in development, there is perverse, almost deliberate, disregard to the fact that much of the research on ‘open development’, open data, access to knowledge and other relevant themes is, paradoxically, behind paywalls. A researcher succinctly bemoaned this in this recent tweet. Indeed, there are increasing voices of discontent, but what is still missing is a more vocal critique of this glaring dissonance.

Amartya Sen observed that the main culprit of food shortages is not the lack of food, but the inequalities inherent in how food is distributed. The same observation rings true if we consider the problem with the economy of ideas in international development research. Innovative thinking and possibilities for collaborative research and knowledge production are not scarce, yet the disconnected knowledge silos in which bits and pieces of the puzzle are scattered, largely due to the outmoded academic publishing systems, are  holding back the realisation of a big part of this potential. That is, the aging and now irrelevant distribution channels of knowledge are the main problem. The elephant in the room of development research is the false openness which is only starting to be, somewhat timidly, acknowledged by a small but increasing number of academics.

So, the main constraint-to a truly inclusive global collaboration on the world’s most pressing issues-is access, not willingness. To further illustrate this, let’s extend the parallel between distributed computing and emerging paradigms of knowledge sharing and collaboration. For a ‘Cooperative Distributed Problem Solving’ system to work, the most fundamental requirement is openness. That is, inputs to the system must not be centrally stored or controlled. Applying this imperative to collaboration in development research, it quickly becomes obvious that the inputs (mostly western-produced research) are heavily centralised, mostly behind publishing paywalls. While there is a rapidly growing interest in open access publishing, the fact that restricted access to research is probably the largest bottleneck to a true co-production of knowledge still doesn’t seem to be adequately recognised.

Complicity in upholding the walled gardens of knowledge
I believe that we, as development researchers and academics, should actively advocate the open access movement and staunchly champion a more rapid shift in the aging paradigms of academic publishing. Otherwise, we concede an undeniable (if sometimes indirect) complicity in upholding these walled gardens of knowledge. We also risk letting ‘openness’ become yet another buzzword with a diluted, nebulous meaning. Choosing to publish your research in open access journals does not only facilitate the creation of new knowledge, but also has been shown to amplify research impact. The emerging technological facilitators of our hyper-connected world are rapidly relegating conventional modes of institutional knowledge production and brokering, which are not only restrictive but also resource-draining, to obsolescence. The desirable path forward is one where the notion of ‘openness’ oft advocated in contemporary development discourses is mirrored in the knowledge pathways through which such discourses flow.

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