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.