What does COVID-19 mean for scholarly communication? Four areas to consider.

By Lucia Loffreda, 07/04/2020 (links updated 13/04/2020).

On 30 January 2020, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. By mid-March, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the outbreak had reached official pandemic status. And today, the coronavirus is directly affecting 203 countries and territories worldwide.

In a matter of weeks, the world has changed beyond recognition and no aspect of society worldwide has been left undisrupted. Our national governments have acted individually and directly to impose increasing controls on their citizens: borders have closed, the sick and elderly are segregated, and the general population are quarantined in nation-wide lockdowns. However, at this unprecedented time of enforced social isolation, the rationale for open science appears more clearly than ever.

In this post I discuss the impact this outbreak has had across the scholarly communications landscape and the implications these changes might have on its key stakeholders.

Making the case for open science

In recent months, increasing emphasis has been placed on the need to develop cohesive, transformative and value-led approaches to open access. We see this particularly as UKRI announced its OA Policy consultation in February, and as UNESCO works to develop an Open Science Recommendation through a similar community-based approach.

Clearly, this global pandemic emerged at a critical time for the scholarly communication community and is perhaps accelerating these kinds of changes. As UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay put it, “the time has come for us to commit all together”.

Pressure on policymakers and funders

In practice, this commitment to open science is not without sacrifice. As the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GMPB) shared an official recommendation that ‘all relevant information about the [COVID-19] outbreak is shared openly and rapidly’, policymakers came under immediate pressure to support faster and more open communication.

The GMPB announcement also triggered a rapid response from research funders, who have released urgent calls for research into the pandemic across academic disciplines. Looking beyond these emergency measures, it is all but inevitable that COVID-19 will lead to:

What does this mean for publishers?

Of course, making the move to open science has implications for publishers too, as they are facing increasing pressure to make materials on the topic of coronaviruses in particular open access. On the whole, publishers have responded positively and quickly to this. For example, when the Wellcome Trust sent an open letter to the scholarly publishing community, calling for open access to all coronavirus research findings and underpinning data, a flood of publishers willingly complied. This has been supported by actors such as STM, who have sought to coordinate and broaden these individual efforts to make research accessible through initiatives such as publisher hubs.

Publishers, however, are perhaps the actors most affected in monetary terms, as a sudden shift to immediate open access has led to criticism of existing publishing models. While commercial publishers like Elsevier and Springer (amongst many others) are making efforts including APC waivers for COVID research, popular newspapers like the LA Times and the Guardian have been quick to highlight the deficiencies of publishing under normal circumstances. Meanwhile, the debate over the value of preprints, and how to use them, continues.  

Researchers and community initiatives

The scientific community has had no choice but to rapidly transform traditional modes of communication to adapt to an ever-evolving health crisis. As a mass of content is added to preprint servers every day, rapid communication is critical to the review process. Researchers have taken to social media, dissecting and assessing information before formal peer review even begins.

Not so long ago, even if researchers were willing to share their findings early, there wasn’t necessarily a natural platform to do so. Now, countless initiatives have been established to facilitate this. For example, open research datasets, portals and resources are readily available. Measures are also in place to guide and moderate researchers’ use of these platforms. The Research Data Alliance’s COVID Working Group was established to advise researchers of best practices for data sharing, and specific efforts are being made to make the same research and guidance accessible across the globe.

Conclusions

At this time of huge uncertainty and formidable change, the scholarly communications community must continue to adapt. Hopefully, with a shared recognition of the value of open science, along with the appropriate infrastructures and guidance, these challenges will be overcome together.

Further reading

In the spirit of open science, see this (non-exhaustive) list of organisations and their open access coronavirus resources: