Dr Sabina Leonelli


Extension: 5137

Telephone: 01392 725137

Associate Professor (Philosophy and History of Science)

Note on Open Access: you can access and download preprints of all my publications here.   

I pursue an approach to philosophy of science that is grounded on the empirical study of scientific practices, as informed by historical research, ethnographic methods used in the social and anthropological studies of science and technology, and collaboration with practicing scientists. My research spans the fields of history and philosophy of biology, science and technology studies and general philosophy of science. My current work focuses on the philosophy, history and sociology of data-intensive science, especially the rhetorics of 'data-driven' research, its relation to experimental practices and to the dissemination and handling of data online, and the role of digital technologies and automation in model organism biology, plant science and biomedicine. I am also researching the implications of the current emphasis on Open Science and Open Data (see my twitterfeed @sabinaleonelli). From March 2014 to February 2019, I am leading a comparative project on "the epistemology of data-intensive science" with the support of an ERC Starting Grant.

I serve as the Associate Director of the Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis) and as the Associate Editor of the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences. I am involved in several interdisciplinary research networks, such as the Knowledge/Value network led by the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, and I am 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 a member of the Society of Biology, and I coordinate the UK network for the History, Philosophy and Sociology of Plant Science.

I am interested and engaged in the social and political roles of science (understood in the broad sense of 'wissenschaft'). I am an elected member to the Global Young Academy (until 2016) and I coordinated the GYA positions on open science and globalisation of research. I also serve as an ex officio member of the steering committee of GARNet, for which I recently produced a report on data dissemination practices in plant science. You can listen to a summary of my views on Open Data in this SAGE podcast, released in September 2013.

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.

In early 2014 I conducted research on these themes as a guest of the Sciences of the Archive project at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. The resulting book manuscript is under review. 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. (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): 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 currently working on a monograph, provisionally entitled 'Thinking with Model Organisms: A Philosophical Approach to Life in the 20th Century Laboratory'

Sample publications: 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. (2013) What Makes a Model Organism? Endeavour.

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? Some of this research is carried out jointly with Rachel Ankeny. It also relates to my work within the Working Group on 'Optimising Assessment - Promoting Excellence' of the Global Young Academy and within GARNet; to an ESRC Cross-Linking Grant on Open Science and Open Innovation, running from April 2013 to March 2014, with David Castle (PI, Innogen), John Dupre (Co-I) and Nadine Levin (RF); and to a Leverhulme Trust Research Grant on data sharing in malaria research, running between January 2014 and December 2015, with Brian Rappert (PI), Ann Kelly (Co-I) and Louise Bezoudenhout (RF).

Sample publications:  Ankeny, R. and Leonelli, S. (2015, in press) 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.