Dr Sabina Leonelli


Extension: 5137

Telephone: 01392 725137

Associate Professor (Philosophy of Science)


Note on Open Access: you can access and download preprints of my publications here as well as on the Data Studies site.  Office Hours: Mondays 9-11 (but please check by email beforehand as I am often away for research).

I serve as the Co-Director of the Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis), where I lead the Data Studies research strand. My research spans the fields of history and philosophy of biology, science and technology studies and general philosophy of science, and currently focuses on the philosophy, history and sociology of data-intensive science, especially the research processes, scientific outputs and social embedding of Open Science, Open Data and Big Data. From 2014 to 2019, this work is supported by the ERC Starting Grant DATA_SCIENCE. I also a Co-I on the Leverhulme Trust Grant Beyond the Digital Divide, led by Brian Rappert, which examines data practices in the developing world; the ARC Discovery Grant Organisms and Us: How Living Things Help Us to Understand Our World, led by Rachel Ankeny; and the British Pharmacological Society project The Future Landscape of in vivo Skills, led by Gail Davies. My book Data-Centric Biology: A Philosophical Study will be released in the fall of 2016 by Chicago University Press.

I am the Associate Editor of the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, a board member of the PhilSci-Archive (the Open Access archive for the philosophy of science) and a member of the executive committees of the European Philosophy of Science Association, the UK Network for the Integrated History and Philosophy of Science, the Society for the Philosophy of Science in Practice and the European Advanced School for the Philosophy of Biology. I am also the senior co-Chair of the EPSA Women's Caucus. As an elected member to the Global Young Academy, I lead the Open Science working group and act as coordinator for the Research Environment thematic area. I serve as an ex officio member of the steering committee of GARNet, for which I produced a report on data dissemination practices in plant science and I am currently organising the conference "From Big Data to Discovery". I sit on the board of the journals Big Data & Society and Data, and the philosophy newsletter The Reasoner. I am a member of the Royal Society of Biology, and I help to coordinate the UK network for the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Plant Science. I have been invited to present my work to a variety of audiences across several countries and institutions, including numerous universities, the Royal Society, the European Commission, the Indian Statistical Institute and the Field Museum. I have held visiting positions at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Evolution and Cognition (2005), the University of Minnesota (Centre for the Philosophy of Science, 2012) and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (project "Sciences of the Archive", 2014).

My research is divided into four strands:

1. The Epistemology of Data-Intensive Science: I explore the epistemological and ontological assumptions underlying the choice and use of taxonomies, theories, models and experimental methods in data-intensive biology and biomedicine. I am also interested in how collective modes of inquiry and division of labor, as instantiated through data infrastructures, affect scientific modes of understanding; and in how tools for data dissemination enable integration and discovery. From 2014 to 2019, this research is funded by the European Research Council. Details of this project can be found on the Data Studies website.

Sample publications:

Leonelli, S. (2015) What Counts as Scientific Data? A Relational Framework. Philosophy of Science 82: 1-12.

Leonelli, S. (2014) What Difference Does Quantity Make? On The Epistemology of Big Data in Biology. Big Data & Society

Leonelli, S. (2014) Data Interpretation in the Digital Age. Perspectives on Science.

Leonelli, S. (2012) Classificatory Theory in Data-Intensive Science: The Case of Open Biomedical Ontologies. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 26(1): 47-65.

Leonelli, S. (2012) When Humans Are the Exception: Cross-Species Databases at the Interface of Clinical and Biological Research. Social Studies of Science 42(2): 214-236.

Leonelli, S. (2012) Making Sense of Data-Driven Research in the Biological and the Biomedical Sciences. Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43(1): 1-3.

Leonelli, S. (2009) On the Locality of Data and Claims About Phenomena. Philosophy of Science, 76, 5: 737-749.

2. The History and Epistemology of Model Organism Research (with Prof Rachel Ankeny): with funding from the ARC Discovery Grant "Organisms and Us" (2016-2019), we investigate the use of model organisms in the 20th and 21st centuries, its influence on the development and content of biological knowledge, and the epistemic status of model organisms as models. We are working on a monograph, provisionally entitled 'Thinking with Model Organisms: A Philosophical Approach to Life in the 20th Century Laboratory'

Sample publications:

Leonelli, S. and Ankeny, R.A. (2015) Repertoires: How to Transform a Project into a Research Community. BioScience.

Leonelli, S., Ramsden, E., Nelson, N. and Ankeny, R.A. (2014) Making Organisms Model Humans: Situated Models in Alcohol Research. Science in Context.

Leonelli, S. and Ankeny, R.A. (2012) Re-Thinking Organisms: The Epistemic Impact of Databases on Model Organism Biology. Studies in the History and Philosophy of the Biological and Biomedical Sciences 43(1): 29-36.

Ankeny, R.A. and Leonelli, S. (2011) What is so special about model organisms? Studies in the History and the Philosophy of Science: Part A, 42 (2): 313-323.

Leonelli, S. (2008) Performing Abstraction. Two Ways of Modelling Arabidopsis thaliana. Biology and Philosophy, 23, 4: 509-528.

Leonelli, S. (2007) Growing Weed, Producing Knowledge. An Epistemic History of Arabidopsis thaliana. History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 29, 2: 55-87. 

3. Open Data and Sharing in Contemporary Biology: I am interested in the relation (or more accurately, the mismatch) between current pushes for OA in scientific publishing and current systems for identifying and rewarding scientific activities. This research ultimately addresses the ever-evasive question: what counts as good science? And how do we measure it? This relates to my work within the Global Young Academy and GARNet, and it has been funded by a GYA project Award on Global Access to Open Software (2015-2016), an ESRC Cross-Linking Grant on Open Science and Open Innovation (2013-2014), and a Leverhulme Trust Research Grant on data sharing and the digital divide with Brian Rappert, Ann Kelly and Louise Bezuidenhout (2014-2016).

Sample publications: 

Leonelli, S., Spichtinger, D. and Prainsack, B. (2015) Sticks AND Carrots: Incentives for a Meaningful Implementation of Open Science Guidelines. Geo, 1

Ankeny, R. and Leonelli, S. (2015) Valuing Data in Postgenomic Biology: How Data Donation and Curation Practices Challenge the Scientific Publication System, in Stevens H, Richardson S (eds) Post-Genomics, Duke University Press.

Leonelli, S. (2013) Why the Current Insistence on Open Access to Scientific Data? Big Data, Knowledge Production and the Political Economy of Contemporary Biology. Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society.

Leonelli, S. (2013) Global Data for Local Science: Assessing the Scale of Data Infrastructures in Biological and Biomedical Research. BioSocieties.

Ankeny, R.A. and Leonelli, S. (2011) Bioethics Authorship in Context: How Trends in Biomedicine Challenge Bioethics. The American Journal of Bioethics, 11(10): 22-24.

Bastow, R. and Leonelli, S. (2010) Sustainable digital infrastructure. EMBO Reports, 11(10): 730-735.

4. Translational Research in Plant Science: I investigate the ways in which species-centrism in the history of plant science is affecting current attempts to establish translational research programmes in this area. This case, together with my work on bioinformatics, enables me to reflect broadly on the historical roots and new characteristics of 21st century biology, and particularly on the relation between the knowledge that is produced and the recent changes in the infrastructure and institutionalisation of research; and between basic and applied modes of research in plant science.

Sample publications: 

Leonelli, S. (2013) Integrating Data to Produce New Knowledge: Three Modes of Integration in Plant Science. Studies in the History and the Philosophy of the Biological and the Biomedical Sciences.  Doi 10.1016/j.shpsc.2013.03.02

Sunder Rajan, K. and Leonelli, S. (2013) Introduction: Biomedical Trans-Actions, Postgenomics and Knowledge/Value. Public Culture.

Leonelli, S., Charnley, B, Webb, A and Ruth, B. (2012) Under One Leaf. A Historical Perspective on the UK Plant Science Federation. New Phytologist 195(1): 10-13.