Science publishing has opened up during the coronavirus pandemic. It won’t be easy to keep it that way

Image from Shutterstock (The Conversation)

This article by Virginia Barbour from Queensland University of Technology  was originally published in The Conversation on 28 July, 2020

Scientific publishing is not known for moving rapidly. In normal times, publishing new research can take months, if not years. Researchers prepare a first version of a paper on new findings and submit it to a journal, where it is often rejected, before being resubmitted to another journal, peer-reviewed, revised and, eventually, hopefully published.

All scientists are familiar with the process, but few love it or the time it takes. And even after all this effort – for which neither the authors, the peer reviewers, nor most journal editors, are paid – most research papers end up locked away behind expensive journal paywalls. They can only be read by those with access to funds or to institutions that can afford subscriptions.

What we can learn from SARS

The business-as-usual publishing process is poorly equipped to handle a fast-moving emergency. In the 2003 SARS outbreaks in Hong Kong and Toronto, for example, only 22% of the epidemiological studies on SARS were even submitted to journals during the outbreak. Worse, only 8% were accepted by journals and 7% published before the crisis was over.

Fortunately, SARS was contained in a few months, but perhaps it could have been contained even quicker with better sharing of research.

Fast-forward to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the situation could not be more different. A highly infectious virus spreading across the globe has made rapid sharing of research vital. In many ways, the publishing rulebook has been thrown out the window.



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Preprints and journals

In this medical emergency, the first versions of papers (preprints) are being submitted onto preprint servers such as medRxiv and bioRxiv and made openly available within a day or two of submission. These preprints (now almost 7,000 papers on just these two sites) are being downloaded millions of times throughout the world.

However, exposing scientific content to the public before it has been peer-reviewed by experts increases the risk it will be misunderstood. Researchers need to engage with the public to improve understanding of how scientific knowledge evolves and to provide ways to question scientific information constructively.



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Traditional journals have also changed their practices. Many have made research relating to the pandemic immediately available, although some have specified the content will be locked back up once the pandemic is over. For example, a website of freely available COVID-19 research set up by major publisher Elsevier states:

These permissions are granted for free by Elsevier for as long as the Elsevier COVID-19 resource centre remains active.

Publication at journals has also sped up, though it cannot compare with the phenomenal speed of preprint servers. Interestingly, it seems posting a preprint speeds up the peer-review process when the paper is ultimately submitted to a journal.

Open data

What else has changed in the pandemic? What has become clear is the power of aggregation of research. A notable initiative is the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19), a huge, freely available public dataset of research (now more than 130,000 articles) whose development was led by the US White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Researchers can not only read this research but also reuse it, which is essential to make the most of the research. The reuse is made possible by two specific technologies: permanent unique identifiers to keep track of research papers, and machine-readable conditions (licences) on the research papers, which specify how that research can be used and reused.

These are Creative Commons licences like those that cover projects such as Wikipedia and The Conversation, and they are vital for maximising reuse. Often the reading and reuse is done now at least in a first scan by machines, and research that is not marked as being available for use and reuse may not even be seen, let alone used.

What has also become important is the need to provide access to data behind the research papers. In a fast-moving field of research not every paper receives detailed scrutiny (especially of underlying data) before publication – but making the data available ensures claims can be validated.

If the data can’t be validated, the research should be treated with extreme caution – as happened to a swiftly retracted paper about the effects of hydroxychloroquine published by The Lancet in May.



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Overnight changes, decades in the making

While opening up research literature during the pandemic may seem to have happened virtually overnight, these changes have been decades in the making. There were systems and processes in place developed over many years that could be activated when the need arose.

The international licences were developed by the Creative Commons project, which began in 2001. Advocates have been challenging the dominance of commercial journal subscription models since the early 2000s, and open access journals and other publishing routes have been growing globally since then.

Even preprints are not new. Although more recently platforms for preprints have been growing across many disciplines, their origin is in physics back in 1991.

Lessons from the pandemic

So where does publishing go after the pandemic? As in many areas of our lives, there are some positives to take forward from what became a necessity in the pandemic.

The problem with publishing during the 2003 SARS emergency wasn’t the fault of the journals – the system was not in place then for mass, rapid open publishing. As an editor at The Lancet at the time, I vividly remember we simply could not publish or even meaningfully process every paper we received.

But now, almost 20 years later, the tools are in place and this pandemic has made a compelling case for open publishing. Though there are initiatives ongoing across the globe, there is still a lack of coordinated, long term, high-level commitment and investment, especially by governments, to support key open policies and infrastructure.

We are not out of this pandemic yet, and we know that there are even bigger challenges in the form of climate change around the corner. Making it the default that research is open so it can be built on is a crucial step to ensure we can address these problems collaboratively.The Conversation

Virginia Barbour, Director, Australasian Open Access Strategy Group, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

CAUL and AOASG welcome open access to scholarly content during the COVID-19 pandemic

A joint statement from CAUL & AOASG

The COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting the crucial role that free, open and immediate access to research plays in combating this threat to human life, society and our way of life.

CAUL and AOASG welcome moves by commercial publishers to open up their content at this critical time. The rapid development of tests, potential treatments and vaccines to clinical trials has been made possible by the frictionless and immediate sharing of new and early stage research and data by researchers and access to previously paywalled content being provided by publishers.

The speed with which many publishers have enabled open access to COVID-19 related content is commendable, and some have also taken the significant step of relaxing access restrictions to content more generally.

It also demonstrates that open access to research should be the new norm.  The time has come to make free and open access to all research a reality. It is critical that once the pandemic is over, in order to accelerate the global transition to free and open access, publishers do not once again restrict access to COVID-19 content. This will be especially crucial in light of the economic challenges all sectors of society will be facing, including universities dealing with constrained scholarly content budgets.

Therefore, we urge publishers to make a commitment to:

  • Ongoing open access to COVID-19 related research publications and data  – the 2002-2004 SARS epidemic, the 2010-11 Christchurch earthquakes in New Zealand and the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic has shown that access to this critical research has not been long term. There exists now an opportunity for this to change for the better.
  • FAIR terms of use – the terms under which most research is being made free and open access in the current crisis is unclear and this means that it could be withdrawn at any time. There is also a significant difference between ‘free to read’ and free to use and reuse. We encourage publishers to make the research available according to FAIR principles enabling research to be Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable, ideally with an associated Creative Commons open licence.
  • Seamless open access to scholarly content – the most effective way to do this is to make content openly available at the publisher’s site. However, the current requirement for many libraries to negotiate access on a case by case basis is adding unnecessary logistical and administrative burdens.

It is crucial that the advances gained from sharing of information at this difficult time are not lost once the emergency is over. An open scholarly publishing environment that ensures FAIR and seamless sharing, access and use of research and data will put humanity in the strongest possible position to face future global challenges.

Download a copy of the media release (PDF)

For comment:

Jill Benn, President of CAUL, caul@caul.edu.au, (02) 6125 2990 &
Virginia Barbour, Director AOASG, eo@aoasg.org.au 07 3138 0623

Tuwhera whakaahua: can indigenous perspectives help to transform scholarly communication?

Luqman Hayes, Scholarly Communications Team Leader, Auckland University of Technology

Luqman-Hayes-webinar#5
Luqman Hayes

The scholarly communication/open access discourse is not short on voices, which makes writing anything on the topic a somewhat fraught exercise.

It seems at times as though no amount of strong argument, lobbying and initiative is able to shift the discussion to a more transformative position offering viable, sustainable alternatives in the face of the status quo.

So why add another voice? Especially if it is to tell the story of setting up an open access journal publishing service at a university. This is not new, right? But what if the process of doing so revealed another way of considering the concept of open access?

Horopaki (context)

In October 2016 Auckland University of Technology (AUT) launched its journal hosting service with two peer-reviewed titles edited by AUT academics. The decision to do so had been in response to calls from academics within the University to provide such a hosting. Those calls led to a feasibility study by the Library in 2014, some University funds and a project which set out with fairly modest objectives and a narrow focus (You can read the full story here.)

Tuwhera (opening up)

Perhaps it was the thinking around the naming of the platform which enabled the aperture of those aims to broaden. Tuwhera is a te reo Māori word which can be translated as a stative verb (be open) or the modified noun forms (open, opening up). In choosing a Māori word for our service we wanted to acknowledge the Treaty of Waitangi as well as to consider that the work we do and the way in which we do it can have a bicultural aspect to it.

Mindful of tokenism, we consulted with Māori members of academic staff at AUT around the naming of the service and when we launched, we did so with significant Māori elements or tikanga, as part of the ceremony, such as waiata (song) and karakia (blessing or prayer) to celebrate and bless Tuwhera.

The launch was held around the time of Open Access Week in 2016 when events and conversations taking place catalysed some of those wider possibilities: using Tuwhera for lay summaries of new and ongoing research or for launching entirely new publications to expose scholarship unique to the Pacific region not being disseminated elsewhere.

The definition of what we understood Tuwhera to be evolved. Our criteria for selecting journals was fast becoming outdated and we were presented with the opportunity of reconfiguring the platform so as to incubate new publications and offer new and non-traditional publishing opportunities to emerging and early career researchers alongside their more established peers. Tuwhera was taking on a kind of whānau (family) role, being a support and a guide and providing a home. An open home, if you will.

Akoranga (learnings)

It seemed as though there were lessons here from the Māori concepts underpinning our work, an insight which was echoed elsewhere, such as by Mal Booth in a blog post on ‘Revolutionising Scholarly Publishing’ in which he made similar observations about learning from indigenous approaches to sharing knowledge.

Such concepts in the context of Aotearoa might include Mātauranga Maori (Māori knowledge) – a complex and “open” system of knowing the world passed on through the layering of stories, wisdom and narratives and expressed via elements such as whakapapa (genealogy), kōrero (discussion), waiata (song) and whakatauki (proverbs).

Further evidence of how looking to indigenous worldviews might influence the scholarly communication environment can be found in Chris Cormack’s 2015 talk at Open Source Open Society on the application of Marae-based consensus building in developing free software as part of creating a commons-based future. Cormack cites several of the underlying principles of the marae (or Māori meeting house) and refers to a range of whakatauki which may usefully guide us away from the perspective of knowledge as residing with the individual.

Whakaahua (transformation)

As a team we have sought to bring shared values into the way in which we work, such as the African term Ubuntu (a person is a person through other people) which has similarities to the Maori concept of mana tangata- to be a person is not to stand alone but to be one with one’s people.

Might such a philosophical reassessment of the largely meritocratic, individualistic values and motivations which currently drive academic output help to shape a sustainable, culturally relevant, holistic and communitarian scholarly communication landscape?

The answer may be all of ours to discover, as the whakatauki states:

Nā tō rourou, nā taku rourou ka ora ai te iwi
With your food basket and my food basket the people will thrive

You can hear more about Tuwhera and the influence of te Ao Maori (Maori worldview) on our work by listening to my webinar presentation from 15th August 2017.