Professor Sabina Leonelli


Extension: 5137

Telephone: 01392 725137

Professor of Philosophy and History of Science


Note on Publications & Open Access: I strongly support Open Access and all my publications since 2010 are freely accessible from the Data Studies site, the ORE site of the University of Exeter, and (when not outrageously expensive) in Gold Open Access format thanks to the generous support of the European Research Council. Orcid ID: 

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; and the epistemology and history of the use of organisms as research models.

From 2014 to 2019, this work is supported by the European Research Council Starting Grant DATA_SCIENCE. I am also a Co-I on the the ARC Discovery Grant Organisms and Us: How Living Things Help Us to Understand Our World, led by Rachel Ankeny (2016-2020), and the ESRC Research Grant Social Sensing of Health and Wellbeing Impact from Pollen and Pollution, led by Hywel Williams (2017-2018). I was recently a Co-I on the Leverhulme Trust Grant Beyond the Digital Divide, led by Brian Rappert, which examined data practices in the developing world, 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 was published by Chicago University Press in November 2016, and won the Lakatos Award in 2018. Links to all reviews are here.

I am the Associate Editor of the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, a member of the Open Science Policy Platform of the European Commission, a board member of the European Open Science Cloud Pilot Project and the PhilSci-Archive (the Open Access archive for the philosophy of science) and a member of the executive committees of 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 (whose 2018 edition I organised with Thomas Reydon). In 2017 and 2018, I served as a key expert in the Mutual Learning Exercise on Open Science (Policy Support Facility) of the DG Research and Innovation of the European Commission.

I am the senior co-Chair of the EPSA Women's Caucus, and from 2013 to 2017 I served as a member of the steering committee of the European Philosophy of Science Association.

I am an alumni of the Global Young Academy, where from 2015 to 2017 I led the Open Science working group within the Research Environment thematic area, and whose voice I continue to represent in my work with the EU Directorate-General for Research and Business. In March 2018 we launched a groundbreaking report on "Global Access to Open Software: The Forgotten Pillar of Open Science", based on a survey carried out by GYA members in Ghana, Nigeria and Bangladesh.

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 recently organised the conference "From Big Data to Discovery", which resulted in the publication of a paper on data management practices in Nature Plants in 2017. I am part of the editorial board of the journals Science, Technology & Human Values, 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 leading universities, the Royal Society, the European Commission, the European Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Science Forum, the Indian Statistical Institute, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the International Data Curation Conference, the Philosophy of Science Association Public Forum 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), the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin (project "Sciences of the Archive", 2014) and the Centre for Logic and Philosophy of Science in Gent, Belgium (2018).

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 methods across data-intensive research fields, particularly biology and biomedicine. I am 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 knowledge integration and discovery. From 2014 to 2019, this research is funded by the European Research Council and conducted in collaboration with Niccolo Tempini. Details, relevant publications and multiple resources can be found on the Data Studies website.

2. The History and Epistemology of Organism in Research (with Prof Rachel Ankeny): with funding from the ARC Discovery Grant "Organisms and Us" (2016-2020), we investigate the use of organisms in 20th and 21st century research, its influence on the development and content of biological knowledge, and the epistemic status of organisms as models. We are working on a monograph, provisionally entitled 'Thinking with Organisms'.

Sample publications:

Ankeny, R.A. and Leonelli, S. (2016) Repertoires: A Post-Kuhnian Approach to Scientific Change and Research Collaboration. Studies in the History and the Philosophy of Science.

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 Science, Open Data and Data Ethics: I am interested in the relation between the current push for openness in scientific funding and publishing, and contemporary research practice. What counts as good science within an Open Science framework, and how do we measure it? This relates to my work within the EU Open Science Policy Platform, 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), a Leverhulme Trust Research Grant on data sharing and the digital divide with Brian Rappert, Ann Kelly and Louise Bezuidenhout (2014-2016) and an ESRC Research Grant with Hywel Williams, Ben Wheeler and Lora Fleming (2017-2018). With Rebecca Lovell, I am currently analysing the notion of fairness in data re-use and the extent to which social media users approve of the use of their posts as research data.

Sample publications:

Leonelli, S. (2017) Global Data Quality Assessment and the Situated Nature of “Best” Research Practices in Biology. Data Science Journal 16(32): 1-11. DOI:

Leonelli, S. (2016) Locating Ethics in Data Science: Responsibility and Accountability in Global and Distributed Knowledge Production. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Part A. 374: 20160122.

Bezuidenhout, L., Leonelli, S., Kelly, A. and Rappert, B (2017) Beyond the Digital Divide: Towards a Situated Approach to Open Data. Science and Public Policy.

Levin, N. and Leonelli, S. (2016) How Does One “Open” Science? Questions of Value in Biological Research. Science, Technology and Human Values.

Bezuidenhout, L., Kelly, A., Leonelli, S. and Rappert, B. (2016) “$100 Is Not Much To You”: Open Access and Neglected Accessibilities for Data-Driven Science in Africa. Critical Public Health.

Levin, N., Leonelli, S., Weckowska, D., Castle, D., and Dupré, J. (2016) How Do Scientists Understand Openness? Exploring the Relationship between Open Science Policies and Research Practice. Bulletin for Science and Technology Studies 36(2): 128-141.

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 the choice to focus on particular species and data management tools within the last fifty years of plant science in Europe and the United States is affecting current attempts to establish translational research programmes in this area, and more generally the international circulation and standardisation of Big Data around crops. This case enables me to reflect broadly on the historical roots, characteristics and locations of 21st century biology, and particularly on the relation between knowledge production, resources and the infrastructure and institutionalisation of research around the world; and between basic and applied modes of research in plant science.

Sample publications:

Leonelli, S., Arnauld, E., Davey, R., Parry, G. and Bastow, R. (2017) Data Management and Best Practice in Plant Science. Nature Plants 3, 17086. DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.86

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.