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How the DNA Barcode Commons are Governed: Understanding how a Heterogeneous Global Community Shares Genetic Resources for Non-Commercial Use Open Access


Other title
DNA barcoding
IAD framework
Institutional logics
Knowledge commons
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Geary, Janis D
Supervisor and department
Bubela, Tania (School of Public Health)
Jardine, Cindy (School of Public Health)
Examining committee member and department
Sperling, Felix (Biological Sciences)
Goodman, Karen (Medicine)
Reay, Trish (Strategic Management and Organization)
McGinnis, Michael (Political Science)
School of Public Health
Public Health
Date accepted
Graduation date
2017-11:Fall 2017
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Life sciences research that uses genetic materials is increasingly collaborative and global. Research partnerships between researchers in high income countries and low and middle income countries have potential benefits for all involved, including minimizing costs and sharing risks. Such partnerships are supported through the development of research infrastructure for sharing genetic resources, including databases and bio-repositories. These shared resources are a type of “knowledge commons” - sets of information-based resources available on terms that encourage efficiency, equitable use, and sustainability and that are managed by groups of various sizes. My empirical research aims to guide development of evidence-based best practices for the rules and institutional structures to govern global knowledge commons. It is grounded in a case-study of the DNA barcoding commons - an international effort to facilitate biodiversity monitoring through standardization of DNA-based species identification. This global resource comprises genetic resources including biological specimens, DNA barcode sequence data and associated metadata. Genetic resource commons share governance challenges with other types of knowledge commons, notably the need to encourage the re-contribution of value-added data arising from use of the resource, and discourage “free-riders”, or individuals who use the resource without ever contributing to it. These challenges are exacerbated in genetic resource commons because of the differential capacity to use and contribute to the commons. Genetic resources are disproportionately located in the mega-diverse lower income countries, while the infrastructure necessary to generate, store, manage and utilize those genetic resources is disproportionately located in high income countries. This unequal distribution gives rise to complex and intertwined social and scientific concerns relating to the equitable distribution of benefits arising from the commons, the protection of genetic resources from unsanctioned commercial development, and the progress of research. These concerns are significant stumbling blocks towards building shared resources, and create the need to understand which rules, structures, and incentives promote fair rules to govern contribution to and use of the commons. My research advanced theory on the development of knowledge commons and provides recommendations for best practices. Using a case-study approach, I examined how research stakeholders in global partnerships established governance structures for the global DNA barcoding commons, and identified ways to improve them. My empirical research answers three broad questions: 1) How do factors identified by the Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) framework influence effective governance of a global knowledge commons? 2) How does heterogeneity inform the rules used by actors to govern their behaviours? 3) How are topics and issues relevant to governing the global DNA barcode commons presented in newspaper coverage? I found that the IAD factors relevant to the DNA barcoding commons created challenges for the collective action required for effective governance. While the DNA barcode commons is functioning to generate and share barcode records, the strategy to openly share data and materials has not yet produced a globally representative barcode resource. To achieve this goal, governance structures should promote an equitable distribution of burdens and benefits for contribution, access, and use. The challenges in governance are related to other findings from my research; the bases of the rules used by DNA barcoding participants suggested a lack of shared understanding for crafting rules between heterogeneous stakeholders. Nevertheless, my research pointed to mechanisms to develop suitable rules for participation in a global knowledge commons based on shared expectations in contexts where the heterogeneous participants might otherwise choose rules that drive conflicting behaviours. Lastly, my research demonstrated that critical issues, such as fair and equitable access and benefits sharing, were omitted from public barcoding discourse in countries where influential policies and guidelines are being developed. The considerable media coverage focused on positive aspects of barcoding science. There exists an opportunity, therefore, for leaders of the barcoding community to generate more awareness of the social and policy context of DNA barcoding activities and their conservation/regulatory goals. Overall, my empirical research aimed to inform best practices for the governance of global knowledge commons, and I have outlined several strategies based on the exemplar DNA barcode commons. Through facilitating representative governance, collective rules-making, and consideration of the complex social and policy context, global knowledge commons can enhance partnerships between researchers in high and lower income countries with benefits for all involved.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
Citation for previous publication
J Geary, E Camicioli, and T Bubela, “DNA Barcoding in the Media: Does Coverage of Cool Science Reflect Its Social Context”, 2016, Genome 59(9): 738-750, doi:10.1139/gen-2015-0210

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