A recent article in The Scientist discusses the newly launched Higher Education Leadership Initiative for Open Scholarship (HELIOS). Composed of ‘leaders’ from over 75 US colleges and universities, HELIOS is committed to incentivising open science practices in order to make research more research more ‘inclusive, transparent, and efficient’. It is an approach designed to reorient assessment mechanisms towards open science practices, including ‘publishing in open-access journals, posting data using FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) principles, and sharing other research outputs such as computer code.’

Throughout the article, we hear how open science ‘democratises’ science and works against the rampant individualism that characterises so much of higher education. Open science is ‘collaborative’ and entails the sharing of data, code and publications for anyone to access and reuse; it also allows research to reach and engage other communities not traditionally considered as part of the research process. These are familiar themes from years of open science advocacy.

Yet it isn’t clear what the relationship is between the greater sharing of research materials and the so-called democratisation at work in open science. What actually is democratising and collectivising about what HELIOS is trying to do?

It is important to ask this question because HELIOS is, by all accounts, a top-down initiative led by senior figures of research-intensive universities in the US. Despite the casual association between open science and collectivity, it appears that HELIOS is more a way for university leaders to coerce researchers into a cultural change, not something that is led by the research community at large. While changing tenure guidelines to prioritise publishing in open access journals, sharing FAIR data and releasing reusable open code may have some good outcomes, they are not themselves the basis for greater collective governance of science. Instead, these changes will provide an economic reason for researchers to adopt open science practices, a reason still based on individual progress within the academy.

Clearly, it makes sense to incentivise behaviours that are good. But the problem here is that greater democratic governance of science is the way by which the incentivising should take place. This is made all the more important because the lack of collective governance within higher education is one of the biggest issues facing knowledge production right now: it is the thing that could lead to much greater cultures of academic research, certainly more so than HELIOS’s narrow focus on open science.

The relationship between ‘openness’ and democratisation is a false one, or at least there is no obvious or necessary connection between the two (see Tkacz’s work for more on the politics of openness). This is because open science is largely focused on the outputs of scientific research instead of the cultures of how they are produced. Or rather, open science is mainly interested in efficient and reproducible modes of production, not ethical or collectively-governed ones. The latter may be a consideration of some visions of open science, but they are not their defining feature.

When policymakers and university leaders mandate openness to specific resources, democratic governance gets left behind. This is because this kind of openness does not require community accountability for it to be realised, only a vague sense that giving resources away will lead to a kind of inclusion that previously did not exist. This focus on resources is what allows the market and private enterprise — the ultimate expression of individualism — to dominate the provision of openness at the expense of community governance.

For open science to adequately ‘democratise’ or ‘collectivise’, it must consider the closures involved in such processes. By closures, I mean the actively designed and nurtured cultures of inclusion — and exclusion, by extension — that are required to foreground the good stuff (different cultures of knowledge, mutual reliance and care) and relegate the bad (everything oriented around profit). At some point, we’re going to have to work out how to leave the openness of openness behind and piece back together a more ethical system of knowledge production based on democratic self-governance of the university itself.