South Africa's move towards open science

Donrich Thaldar

Donrich Thaldar

Donrich Thaldar is a full professor of law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, where he chairs the Health Law & Ethics Research Interest Group. He is currently principal investigator of the DS-I Africa Law project.

In today’s world, science plays a role that is undeniable and essential. It serves as a cornerstone for advancements in society, ensuring that we grow, innovate, educate, develop, and thrive. As asserted by the International Science Council (2020), science remains ‘an indispensable contribution to the human endeavour’. 

However, for science to genuinely succeed and impart its benefits to society, its knowledge must be as accessible as possible. Yet, a pressing concern that echoes within the scientific community is the seclusion of scientific findings, which can limit its potential benefits to the wider public. Recognising this, the concept of open science has gained traction, championing the notion of democratising scientific knowledge. Philosophers like Holbrook (2019) emphasise that open science aims to bridge the rift between science and society, providing an inclusive platform where everyone can partake in the wonders of scientific discoveries.  

The digital era, especially the power of the Internet, magnifies this potential. The Internet can be an enabler, widely dispersing knowledge without barriers. Steger and Hantho (2019) keenly describe open science as a ‘no-barrier approach to scientific research’, advocating for the elimination of hurdles, such as article paywalls, that can significantly stifle scientific growth.  

Recognising this shift, South Africa’s Department of Science and Innovation unveiled its Draft National Open Science Policy last year. This draft policy aims to promote the ethos of open science. It stands in stark contrast with another draft policy that also deals with data, namely the Draft National Policy on Data and Cloud developed by the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies. In a recent article that I authored with Amy Gooden and Michaela Steytler, we highlight the various ways in which these two policies differ, and suggest that the approach adopted by the Draft National Open Science Policy is better aligned with South Africa’s commitment to being an open and democratic society.  

However, we also pinpoint three aspects of the Draft National Open Science Policy that warrant further attention:  

1. Constitutional alignment: The draft policy must be firmly anchored within the South African Constitution, emphasising the connection between open science and the freedom of scientific research. 

2. Clarity on data ownership: The draft policy currently omits the critical issue of data ownership, a gap that needs addressing. Here we are not referring to intellectual property rights, but to ‘normal’ ownership of data by the data generator. 

3. Human vs. non-human genetic data: A clear demarcation between these types of data is essential and should remain intact. Trying to apply the legal rules related to benefit-sharing of non-human genetic data to human data would infringe dignity—moreover, it would be unlawful.

To ensure the success of open science in South Africa, a holistic engagement with constitutional law, property law, and international law is paramount. We invite you to read our full article