Open Knowledge Beyond Replicability

For today’s blog in our series marking International Open Access Week, we asked Marta Bivand Erdal to reflect on some of the opportunities and challenges of the open science agenda for social scientists working with qualitative methods. Both quantitative and qualitative methods play an important role in the work our researchers do here at PRIO, and this debate is central for our ongoing thinking about open peace research. Here are Marta’s reflections on this important topic

Photo: Scott Webb CC via Unsplash

For qualitative research, it is a challenge that ‘open science’ is so often framed around the logic of replicability, a logic which collides with foundational epistemological concerns across many kinds of qualitative research. If open science is defined in this way, an implication is that qualitative research becomes the ‘exceptional case’ – different and difficult – because it cannot properly and in the expected ways comply with standardized norms of open science. This is unfortunate, both for the quest for openness in science and for the scope of engagement with open science among researchers working with qualitative methodologies.

Current approaches to open science are often built on terms defined by the medical and/or natural sciences, comprising – Open Source, Open Data, Open Access, Open Notebook. Yet, ‘open science’ has a long history, and is arguably a good match for many of the principles that are central to qualitative research methodologies, e.g. the co-production and thus also co-ownership of data, and the need to reflect on power hierarchies and equality in access to science, not least to be able to quality assure the robustness and validity of scientific findings.

A definition of open science, drawing on a literature review of definitions across different fields, summarizes that: ‘Open Science is transparent and accessible knowledge that is shared and developed through collaborative networks’. This is a definition that allows for engagement from a qualitative research perspective, because the replicability logic is not foregrounded as a starting point. Instead, shared principles of scientific quality are proposed as the point of departure.

As researchers working with qualitative methodologies, we need to be more proactive. There is a need to move away from relating to what we might describe as ‘the open science agenda’ primarily via reactions to systems and technical solutions of ‘data sharing’ developed with quantitative datasets in mind, and often implicitly assuming the universal applicability of the logic of replicability.

This year’s Open Access Week theme is ‘Open for whom? Equity in open knowledge’. This theme provides an opportunity to reflect on current qualitative research practice, which speaks directly to this concern for equity in open knowledge. Such research practice includes, e.g., communicating with research participants during the research process about the data which is being co-produced. This can in practice range from sharing transcripts with interviewees for their feedback, reaction and reflections, to discussions with individuals or groups of research participants about preliminary insights from data collection, as part of ongoing fieldwork relationships. It might also entail the active pursuit of transparency and openness in communication with research participants, as well as stakeholders outside the academic community, by means of public talks, media or social media engagement, throughout the various stages of the research process.

Such research practices are not uncommon among researchers working with qualitative methodologies, yet, these practices of open knowledge are perhaps not talked about actively enough, nor systematically logged and made evident as integral parts of our research practice. Inevitably, there is also likely to be scope for improvement in our current research practice. Further transparency might contribute to establishing norms of best practice where these may not be self-evident today.

Some key questions remain, including: How to best support and facilitate transparency and openness in qualitative research – on its own terms? What does open knowledge look like, in practice, when it does not (necessarily or in some cases at all) entail sharing ‘datasets’ as a main goal? And how can qualitative research practice, which already addresses goals of open knowledge, help inform ongoing debates on open knowledge across scientific disciplines, with different methodological and epistemological approaches?


Marta Bivand Erdal is Research Professor in Migration Studies and Coordinator of the Migration Research Group at PRIO. Her research focuses on migration processes and transnational ties, living together in culturally and religiously diverse societies, citizenship and nationhood. She is currently leading a task force at PRIO on open data practices in qualitative research.

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