Enabling a sustainable transition to open science: 5 strategies for the future

By Lucia Loffreda 10/11/2020.

Last week, we shared 5 strategies to protect research capacity as the research enterprise begins its recovery from COVID-19. Today, we’ll discuss 5 ways to enable a sustainable transition to open science – a transition that has arguably been accelerated by the outbreak of coronavirus.

It’s widely agreed that COVID-19 has exposed long-standing fault lines in the current scholarly communications system. For example, the pandemic has created significant operational challenges for academic libraries and has led to rapid online research and collaboration. Both of these impacts have highlighted the pressing need for investment in digital infrastructure.

In this post, we’ll outline some of the key impacts that COVID-19 is having in terms of access to research information before outlining five underpinning strategies to support a sustainable transition to open science going forward.

Each of the strategies outlined in this post are taken from our recent work commissioned by Springer Nature, assessing the impact of COVID-19 on the research enterprise. You can now read the full or summary reports online.

Ensuring access to research information during a pandemic

The disruption caused by COVID-19 has had a number of implications for the way we conduct and use research. The list below covers some of these impacts which are discussed in more detail in our report:

  • Access to research information is disrupted. During the pandemic, like many other facilities on university campuses, academic libraries were forced to close. This prompted many libraries to consider their capacity for digital research support, for example off-campus access to digital collections for researchers. In this sense, the pandemic has highlighted an emerging need to move towards ‘digital first’ infrastructure, particularly to enable the continuation of remote research.
  • Reduced library budgets are increasing scrutiny of journal subscriptions. The reduction in university income, coupled with increased demand for e-books, puts increasing pressure on library budgets. Universities in the UK and Australia are expecting to review their subscription agreements and COVID-related pressures may accelerate moves to cancel or renegotiate ‘big deals’ with publishers.
  • Use of scholarly content has greatly increased during the crisis. The pandemic has created a new urgency to rapidly share and review COVID-19 research. This includes the lifting of paywalls on COVID-related content and an acceleration in the use of preprints. Improved digital infrastructures and quality assurance mechanisms will be vital to enable responsible research production at increasing speeds.

The critical role of research during the pandemic, summarised in the bullets above, has raised an awareness of open science among researchers, decision-makers and the broader public. International actors, such as the European Commission, the World Health Organisation and UNESCO have all issued strong calls for greater and more equitable access to research results in recent months. It is now down to stakeholders across the research enterprise to coordinate a response.

Formulating a response

Figure 1. A three-phased response to the pandemic

The graphic above presents how universities are best to respond in order to ensure a transition to open science. In the rest of this section, we’ll outline five strategies to enable a sustainable and coordinated transition to support a research-led recovery from COVID-19.

  1. Increase investment in digital infrastructure. As researchers continue to work and collaborate from home, the need to rapidly share information increases. The role of digital infrastructure providers will be essential to developing appropriate digital services to address researcher needs, while funders and institutions will need to carefully consider the balance between short-term investment in student-facing services versus larger-scale investments in digital research infrastructure, such as high-performance computing and petabyte-scale data storage.
  2. Redefine roles for commercial and community actors. The pandemic has highlighted the need for digital infrastructures that enable rapid data sharing and research collaboration. Publishers and digital service providers will have an important role to play in ensuring better integration of research services, to enable more efficient research. But new governance and funding models will also be needed to prevent ‘lock-in’ with commercial providers and ensure value for money.
  3. Enable innovation in peer review. While the speed of publication has increased significantly during the pandemic period, a handful of high-profile retractions have highlighted the continued importance of a strong peer-review system. Publishers, learned societies, and academics will have a key role to play in enabling innovation in peer review processes to cope with increased demand.
  4. Embed preprints in publication workflows. In recent months, preprints have been driving the efficient dissemination of scientific work, and the pandemic period saw an accelerated use of preprints as the rate of research production and consumption rose rapidly.To enable sustained rapid information sharing, publishers must play an active role in embedding preprints in publication workflows.
  5. Adopt open science as the ‘new normal’. One of the more positive outcomes of COVID has been an increased awareness of open science and its benefits. All stakeholders across the research enterprise will need to play a role in pushing for a fair and sustainable transition to open by default.

Many of the strategies highlighted above will rely on a coordinated response from stakeholders across the research landscape. In the graphic below, we’ve linked each strategy to the stakeholders most critical to their implementation.

Figure 2. 5 strategies to transition to open science

Where to next?

Next week, we’ll explore the final element of the research enterprise covered in our report – research funding.

You can read the full set of findings and strategies in our full report, and last week’s blog at this link. To be kept up to date on the next posts in the series, you can also follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.

To discuss how we can help your organisation develop its strategy in the light of COVID-19 please visit our website or contact Rob Johnson, Director.