Data & Visual Literacy and the COVID-19 Infodemic

This post was contributed by Map & Spatial Data Librarian Theresa Quill.

Scholarly and scientific information is distributed in a variety of ways.  The COVID19 pandemic has spurred a large volume of scholarly literature, but also data sharing and data visualization to track the spread of this coronavirus and the impact of efforts to combat it. Some of this information is reliable and some of it is not.

Visual Literacy and Resources Librarian Jackie Fleming and Map & Spatial Data Librarian Theresa Quill were recently published in Digital Culture and Education, discussing their efforts to combat the COVID-19 infodemic.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the evolving situation surrounding COVID-19 is changing the world. This change includes the response and mission of academic libraries. Information about COVID-19 is being published every day in both textual and visual formats. One thing that all of this information has in common is that it is easily accessible to the public. As academic librarians, we believe that it is our job to guide our community to reliable information and teach them how to receive and interpret this information.

The democratization of data visualization and mapping tools over the past decade has meant that creating and sharing visualizations is no longer limited to the realm of experts. While this trend has been overall beneficial, it has also resulted in increased visibility for (mostly unintentionally) misleading or confusing maps and charts and places a greater burden of critically reading and evaluating visualizations on the reader.

The authors say –

“As the Map & Spatial Data Librarian and, Visual Literacy and Resources Librarian at Indiana University-Bloomington, we believed that it was our responsibility to address the surge of visual information being produced daily about COVID-19 cases. We decided that the best action to take was to create a Visual Literacy & Map LibGuide that specifically addressed data visualizations tracking COVID-19 cases. This guide lists reliable data visualizations to follow, tips for reading these visualizations, and general resources for spatial and visual literacy as well as, articles addressing COVID-19 data visualizations. Because COVID-19 is a rapidly evolving situation, we have been periodically adding information to this guide as we find it. We felt that creating this LibGuide was a good first step in developing our campus community’s visual literacy skills in the COVID-19 crisis.”

You can view the research guide here:

And the full article here:


COVID-19 demonstrates the value of Open Access. What happens next?

This is an excerpt from an article published in College & Research Libraries News May 2020.

In the wake of COVID-19, many publishers have tacitly agreed that open access is beneficial to scientific advancement and necessary to move science forward to combat disease. Publishers have committed to open access publication of scientific articles relating to the disease. Some are facilitating rapid and open peer review and fast-tracking the publishing of related research. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Hiltzig refers to this convincing demonstration of the value of open access to scientific research as one of the most important positive disruptions caused by COVID-19.

The World Health Organization maintains a global research hub with links to several publisher sites for access to coronavirus research, and the United States Centers for Disease Control has compiled a similar list. Elsevier (and its high profile journals like Cell, and The Lancet), Wiley, SpringerNature, The New England Journal of Medicine and scores of other publishers and publications have provided open access to COVID-19 research. Even news magazines like Wired and Medium, which usually allow readers access to a limited number of free articles without a subscription, began providing free unlimited access to stories about COVID-19 shortly after it was classified as a global pandemic. They also offered an invitation to sign up for email updates, as if our anxiety levels were not already high enough. SpingerNature is encouraging researchers to use their In Review pre-print system while articles are being peer-reviewed and to share datasets widely. Many vendors are offering free access to online learning solutions and educational resources for the remainder of the spring semester. Some researchers have chosen to bypass traditional journals altogether, putting their work on disciplinary pre-print servers.

While the absence of peer review on these platforms has the potential to widely disseminate misinformation, the robust use of pre-print servers by the scientific community has worked to rebut spurious claims, in effect crowd sourcing rapid expert peer-review. (So no, there is no evidence that COVID-19 was manufactured in a lab. ) It is also worth noting that Nature’s Outbreak Science Rapid PREview server, which was established in response to COVID-19, allows scientists with an ORCID ID to submit a review while reading pre-prints pulled in from the medRxiv, bioRxiv and arXiv repositories.

Government officials in the US, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and the UK are now calling for even wider access. This would encompass the text of journal articles as well as machine-readable text to enable analysis using artificial intelligence, along with research data made available through sources like PubMed Central and the World Health Organization’s COVID database. Outside of the realm of scientific publication, the Taiwanese response to the outbreak highlights how easy, free public access to reliable information is beneficial to a robust, effective response across a complex system which requires the co-ordination of governance, institutions, individuals and their varying points and levels of interaction. Taiwanese analyst Victor (Lin) Pu argues that “the free flow of information is the best treatment for the coronavirus outbreak.”

At the time this article was written, the current outbreak was expected to subside within a few months, with health authorities using shutdowns, social distancing and quarantines in an effort to ‘flatten the curve’ of contagion.  When the pandemic subsides, where do we go next in academic publishing? Clearly, most stakeholders in this pandemic situation regard knowledge about the disease as an open access common pool resource — a public good that should be freely accessible. Does this change in the absence of a crisis? Is it then acceptable to slow the progress of science? And who has the right to make these decisions?

Read the complete article in College & Research Libraries News.