In January 2020, Wellcome coordinated the release of a Joint Statement, calling on researchers, journal publishers and funders to ensure that research findings and data relevant to the COVID-19 outbreak are shared rapidly and openly to inform the public health response and help save lives. The Joint Statement was developed internally by Wellcome, followed statements which were issued during the Zika and Ebola outbreaks, and built on work by the WHO and GloPID-R.
Since November 2021, Research Consulting and Science-Metrix (an Elsevier company) have been investigating the impact of the Joint Statement on open sharing practices during the pandemic, in a project commissioned by Wellcome, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Building on extensive desk research, interviews with policymakers and experts, an online survey and a bibliometric analysis, the findings of this work are now available in the form of a public report and executive summary.
In this blog post, we summarise a range of lessons learned, success factors, opportunities for improvement and recommendations for similar initiatives in the future.
Open sharing had a positive impact on the global pandemic response
Shifting research cultures mean that it is more difficult to assess whether signatories have made changes due to the Joint Statement or because of other phenomena in the research landscape. The difference-in-differences approach used by Science-Metrix is key to address the extent to which any changes seen in signatory organisations may be tied to the Joint Statement.
Our research found that open and rapid sharing was a key success factor in the global pandemic response, alongside efforts to collaborate internationally and the availability of advanced research infrastructures. For example, we found that the availability of open research outputs helped to inform policy in real-time. Our bibliometric analysis discovered that 94% of COVID-19 articles with signatory funding support were available to read freely during the pandemic, and that 22% of COVID-19 articles with signatory funding support had a policy citation.
Not all signatories fully implemented their Joint Statement commitments
With a total of 160 signatory organisations, the Joint Statement helped aligned the efforts of stakeholders across the open research landscape towards a shared goal. The recognition of Wellcome’s brand, its experience with similar statements in the past, and the timeliness of the Joint Statement’s release all contributed to achieving positive outcomes. However, we also note that signatories had a shared ethos and already sought to support the global pandemic response: the commitments in the Joint Statement were in line with this objective.
We already complied with the call from Wellcome at the outbreak of the pandemic. Our policies are designed to accelerate research and make it available and useful to all: it was an opportunity for us to show how these principles are relevant and essential to address a global pandemic.Publisher
While the Joint Statement was certainly successful in bringing the research community together around a set of shared goals, some signatories fell short of their commitments. In particular, ensuring that “research findings are made available via preprint servers before journal publication” and “researchers share interim and final research data relating to the outbreak” are two areas where there is room for improvement.
For example, our bibliometric analysis found that only 19% of COVID-19 articles with signatory funding support were linked to preprints, indicating that the practice is still not widespread. While researcher behaviours around data availability were more difficult to assess, less than half (44%) of COVID-19 articles with signatory affiliation were found to have an accompanying data availability statement.
We did not monitor the success [of our efforts to meet the Joint Statement’s commitments] as we do not have the instruments to do this. Monitoring of data sharing is even harder. We did however evaluate the openness of preprints and data of the projects that we funded in our [COVID-19 call for proposals]Research funder
The above findings are not completely surprising, however, as the penetration of practices such as data sharing and preprint posting is not balanced across disciplines, funders, publishers and more. The Joint Statement could have helped bridge this gap by including guidance on how commitments in these areas could be realised in practice, to enhance alignment with the behaviours that signatories sought to support.
Recommendations for the future
Building on the experience of the COVID-19 Statement, and thinking further back to previous Wellcome-led efforts such as the 2016 Zika Statement, a number of lessons can be learnt to support open sharing practices in the future.
We have therefore formulated six key recommendations that we think will help the research and public health communities respond to future international emergencies:
- Strengthen expectations in relation to the sharing of research data and preprints. We suggest that future statements should include stronger expectations on data sharing and preprint posting, with clear guidance on how these should be achieved, for example by requiring a digital object identifier and/or accession number for data, or by stipulating the posting of preprints as a condition of funding or article acceptance.
- Establish a framework to assess the level of success of the initiative. Although partly due to the pace of the COVID-19 pandemic, setting clearer targets for signatories would likely lead to more straightforward data collection and monitoring exercises against specific commitments. An audit framework, for example, could have led to increased success in areas where the Joint Statement failed to fully deliver, such as preprint posting and data sharing.
- Present commitments for signatories in a more granular way, including guidance for their operationalisation. Since a broad range of actors signed the Joint Statement, setting out clear roles and responsibilities would be helpful. To support signatories, tailored guidance should be provided, including suggestions on the operationalisation of commitments.
- Build knowledge sharing mechanisms to foster learning and collaboration between signatories. Joint Statement signatories devised a wide range of strategic and operational changes to implement their responses to COVID-19 in line with the commitments made. Knowledge sharing mechanisms should be established to share operationalisation examples and enable signatories to learn from each other’s experiences and challenges.
- Carefully consider the long-term policy impact of specific statement commitments. Several publishers chose to make COVID-19 content accessible via free-to-read pathways rather than via open access (and openly licensed) options. However, the impact of the Joint Statement on open sharing cultures may remain limited to the context of the pandemic rather than continue in the future.
- Assess the impact of Statement commitments on low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Future statements should explicitly promote equitable access to and re-use of research outputs from low- and middle-income countries. This would help to ensure that researchers and organisations in LMICs can take full advantage of open sharing and feel equally incentivised to share information.
By considering the above recommendations, the impact, reach and inclusiveness of future open sharing statements can be even higher. This will help the higher education and research community achieve more concerted and equitable outcomes at the international level and enhance the chances of a prompt resolution to future global crises.
I’m hoping that the research community has once again learned how important open science is… Whether this increased awareness will translate into action and have a lasting effect remains to be seen. Research funder
Find out more about this project
Full report: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6620854
Executive summary: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6620914
Annex A – Technical report: https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6643492
Zenodo community (qualitative data, bibliometric database, code): https://zenodo.org/communities/data-sharing-in-public-health-emergencies/