Open Science in the era of the Coronavirus

The Coronavirus crisis has undoubtedly shone a light on just how critical the implications of Open can be to society. While researchers world-over are working hard to find a vaccine and effective drugs— and many publishers and service providers have stepped up to provide research and information open access temporarily — researchers are still missing out on relevant publications, software and research data that remain out of reach.

The coronavirus is impacting virtually all parts of our lives; thus we need knowledge and practices from not only the medical field but from all areas of public health and the social sciences. 

Although great strides in Open Science have been — and are being — made to enable increased access to vital information, we must decide not go back to business as usual. What we need to do now is plan to provide an infrastructure and publishing system that is prepared for the crises we are both currently facing and still have yet to face. 

Much praise is due the Open Access and research community that has been tirelessly working for almost two decades to distribute research in the interest of strong science and the public good. This work has directly fed into new policies, work processes, services, tools, and infrastructure that have enabled access to critical knowledge in this crisis. In recent weeks we have seen more and more researchers sharing publications and data more quickly than ever before, starting with the genetic sequence of COVID-19 being posted in GenBank – an OA database; this, in turn, led to more articles, data and code being shared openly – without delay – to spur the race to develop a vaccine.

The research community has been creating new open data resources such as The Human Coronaviruses Data Initiative, the COVID-19 Open Source Dashboard, Wikiproject COVID-19 and the COVID Tracking Project, though still far fewer data collections exist relative to publications. And in the instances where data collections do exist, they are often presented as tools that visualize or crunch the data rather than store and share it, which reflects how much more needs to be done to encourage researchers to share their research data.

Far more activity can be reported in the open-access publication space with resources and services such as CORD-19, LitCovid, or the Outbreak Science Rapid PREreview. Many researchers are sharing initial results on bioRxiv and medRxiv, now also brought together in COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 preprints so that their work can be viewed, reviewed and tested, quickly, by fellow researchers within their community. These preprint servers will remain open, even after this current public health crisis has passed.

The real-time sharing of research publications, software, and data to fight COVID-19 demonstrated in recent weeks is unprecedented.

We must continue to provide those on the front lines of research, training, care and prevention with immediate access to knowledge regardless of where they are in the world or how deep their pockets are. This is important now to fight the Coronavirus and in future to fight new epidemics and solve the world’s problems more efficiently and rapidly.  

In parallel to all the great collaborative efforts and open sharing of essential information and research to support the Covid-19 community, we must also be mindful that it is taking a major health crisis to bring broader societal awareness to the grave deficiencies of our current research communication system — and illustrate why it matters far beyond academia. The immediate need for access to research across the globe for those working on the Coronavirus demonstrates the true value and impact of Open to help solve global problems such as COVID-19. It is an unfortunate truth that many of the world’s researchers only have access to a fraction of the information and knowledge that should be available to them.

Providing access to research to a select group is not a researcher’s privilege; in fact, this runs counter to the collaborative culture of both research and a well-functioning society. The true cost of the current publishing model becomes painfully clear when a critical need, like that which we’re experiencing today, arises. Hence governments, funders, charities, industry and the research community around the world have called for increasing open access to research to save lives through collaborative calls to action by, e.g. Wellcome, The White House and OCLC. This action alone clearly makes the case for changing the default of access to research from closed to open.

To their credit, publishers have responded responsibly by unlocking material that is normally behind paywalls making it accessible for all as they did during the Zika, SARS and Ebola crises. However, this is a temporary measure for the current health emergency; and it is a sticking plaster. Once publishers determine the crisis period has passed, paywalls will return. 

Although many publishers are moving towards OA models, certain barriers to full and immediate open access still remain. For instance, very real concerns exist related to barriers to immediate OA publications  and to the related costs and to the extent to which we are delivering 100 percent OA. A real need exists for a more rapid sharing of FAIR research data by researchers and governments alike, e.g. even some governments are not sharing data on COVID-19; transparency is now more critical than ever before. We are still a way off from where we need to be. A recent LSE blog post addressed the concerns with the traditional publishing industry and also how its traditions might change as a result of Corona. The writers – Larivière, Shu and Sugimoto – reported that more than half of articles published on Coronaviruses remain closed despite efforts to unlock paywalled publications this month. They furthermore underline the need for access to more research beyond a limited subset for COVID-19 since biomedical research is so interdisciplinary in nature. This approach potentially blinds research from other work that could be vital.

Whilst the crisis mounted in Wuhan, it is particularly telling that the National Natural Science Foundation of China, which has long urged its researchers to publish in high-impact Western journals, began directing researchers to publish in Chinese journals instead — a move they had already been under consideration. This suggests an understanding that sharing results locally was more beneficial and would have the greatest impact. The NSFC, for the time being at least, has disallowed the use of total papers published as a key criterion for evaluating researchers and has stopped its cash-per-publication policy, an indication that they are prioritising timely access over publishing venue. Perhaps this will encourage other countries to rethink how far the existing scholarly communication system really is in fact working for them in practice. 

To conclude, please, let’s resolve to not go back to business as usual. Let’s help provide an infrastructure and publishing system that is prepared for the larger crises we have yet to face. We can expect continued closed access to research for many unless more funders and governments call for systematic change to make the research they fund open, immediately upon publishing, as called for by cOAlition S for publications for example and by numerous countries and national funders in Europe for research data. We need to eliminate barriers such as high OA publishing prices and embargoes; we need open licenses, more FAIR research data shared and a sustainable open science infrastructure to support our efforts well into the future. More Open Education Resources are also required to improve access to education for all in good and bad times. Only then will we be better prepared for the next crisis; and able to truly accelerate solving some of the world’s most pressing health, sustainable energy, agriculture or climate problems.  

Libraries, research institutions, scholarly communities and societies, funders and service providers can make this concerted change together – since we are all affected by it. We need to do this by developing strong supportive policies and services and infrastructure that deliver open access research results for all at an affordable price. We deserve to live in a world where we can depend on the fact that our researchers have timely access to the information and knowledge they need to fight disease and major world problems. Corona is an important test case for Open Science. The research community has clearly embraced and utilised Open Science to help it find a solution to COVID-19, but more can be done to fully exploit the potential of OS by researchers sharing more data more rapidly. What a crisis does is trigger in us what is fundamentally important. We can learn from this experience. The need for global OA is evident and it is in our hands: Open up research, not just for Corona, but from today for all time for crises and opportunities still unseen. Governments, funders, libraries and research communities: We must unlock our research for science, culture and society.

Take me to SPARC Europe’s Open Science Coronavirus collection