AOASG Director, Professor Ginny Barbour spoke at the IP & education in the age of COVID-19 research symposium at QUT on 29 July 2020.
Here’s the presentation:
AOASG Director, Professor Ginny Barbour spoke at the IP & education in the age of COVID-19 research symposium at QUT on 29 July 2020.
Here’s the presentation:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This article by Professor Ginny Barbour & Martin Borchert has been peer reviewed and was first published in April 2020 by the Australian Academy of Science
In the few months since the first case of COVID-19 was identified, the underlying cause has been isolated, its symptoms agreed on, its genome sequenced, diagnostic tests developed, and potential treatments and vaccines are on the horizon. The astonishingly short time frame of these discoveries has only happened through a global open science effort.The principles and practices underpinning open science are what underpin good research—research that is reliable, reproducible, and has the broadest impact possible. It specifically requires the application of principles and practices that make research FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable); researchers are making their data and preliminary publications openly accessible, and then publishers are making the peer-reviewed research immediately and freely available to all. The rapid dissemination of research—through preprints in particular as well as journal articles—stands in contrast to what happened in the 2003 SARS outbreak when the majority of research on the disease was published well after the outbreak had ended.
Many outside observers might reasonably assume, given the digital world we all now inhabit, that science usually works like this. Yet this is very far from the norm for most research. Science is not something that just happens in response to emergencies or specific events—it is an ongoing, largely publicly funded, national and international enterprise.
In Australia there is a well-established base of scientific research conducted by thousands of researchers. Most of these researchers are in universities, associated public institutes such as medical research institutes, or CSIRO. These organisations receive substantial taxpayer funding. The Australian Research Council (ARC) and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) administer most of the funding that goes by competitive grants to researchers and institutions—approximately $1.6 billion per year.
Australian research is highly diverse: it may be very specific—aimed at a cure for a particular disease, for example—or much more theoretical. Theoretical research (also called ‘discovery’ or ‘basic’ research) may often not have an immediate application but can lead to long-term benefits. One example is the work by CSIRO scientists on radio physics that led to the development of Wi-Fi, on which many of us rely today as we stay at home to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Having a strong scientific research base ensures that when emergencies happen, there are already groups across Australia and around the world who are working on relevant areas and can rapidly turn their attention to the new problem. Of course, most of these scientists are geographically remote from each other and the success in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has depended fundamentally on open science: scientists being able to rapidly see what others have done, to check its validity by accessing both the underlying data and the researchers’ interpretation of their research, and to build on it for the next advance.
This success has been enabled by calls from organisations that already support open research for a coordinated global open science effort. However, the very reason these calls are needed is because the current system is not open by default. Researchers are not incentivised to share before journal publication, since research is a highly competitive process. This includes acquiring funding for research, which is largely based on just one part of a research effort: the journal publication.
In 2019 for example, the NHMRC only funded 13.2% of grant proposalssubmitted to its Investigator Grant scheme. Publication of research in academic journals itself is competitive, can take many months, and tends to favour only the sharing of positive results (including for the most important of clinical studies, controlled clinical trials)—all of which is highly problematic in emergency situations where it is equally important to understand what does not work. Sharing of the underlying data that journal articles are based on is not yet a universal requirement for publication, nor are researchers usually recognised for data sharing.
There are many benefits associated with an open science model. Image adapted from: Gaelen Pinnock/UCT; CC-BY-SA 4.0.
Once published, even access to research is not seamless. The majority of academic journals still require a subscription to access. Subscriptions are expensive; Australian universities alone currently spend more than $300 million per year on subscriptions to academic journals. Access to academic journals also varies between universities with varying library budgets. The main markets for subscriptions to the commercial journal literature are higher education and health, with some access to government and commercial.
The Department of Education and Training statistics indicate 1.5 million students and 130,000 staff members are in universities, while the Department of Health indicates there are 600,000 health workers. Together these comprise about 2.5 million people or 10% of the Australian population, noting that the largest group, university students, move through universities and may actually lose access after graduation. This percentage is likely to be similar for other developed nations but will be much worse for those in countries with developing economies—they simply cannot afford the subscription fees.
One reason for this lack of access to published research is because the means of sharing of research largely sits outside of universities. Furthermore, most of the journals—and indeed much of the infrastructure that underpins research dissemination—are owned by a small number of companies with high profits. Just one of these, Elsevier, made almost AUD2 billion (£982 million) profit in 2019. Hence, despite the enormous sums spent globally on publishing, which could support research being open, traditional publishers of research (i.e. non-open access ones) have an inherent interest in, at the least, slowing the transition from the status quo. Publishers know that lack of access in emergencies is unacceptable and have indeed made much research on COVID-19 open, just as they did during the Ebola epidemic and the recent Australian bushfire crisis, only to quietly close off access afterwards.
There are signs that publishers are thinking about how to reinstate control after the emergency. On its corporate site for COVID-19 research, Elsevier states that ‘these permissions are granted for free by Elsevier for as long as the COVID-19 Resource Center remains active’ and the publisher requires its own ‘els-covid’ licence terms on collective resources. Some publishers have notably not participated at all in coordinated calls to make coronavirus-related articles discoverable and accessible to facilitate text mining (computer-aided searching and analysis of research) and secondary analysis—the American Medical Association, publisher of JAMA, is one example.
Opening up research on the specific topic of the current crisis is really only a gesture. In the current pandemic, researchers are also searching for information from the past literature on many topics, such as on the properties of ventilators and face masks as well as on previous coronaviruses. These papers, especially older ones, have largely not been made available in, for example, the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset (CORD-19) of scholarly literature.
The roots of this system are complex and come from a time when sharing research via paper journals and subscriptions were the only options. This has left us with a research system that is much less efficient than it could be: duplicated funding, duplicated effort, and more time taken to solve big scientific and health problems. We now need a system that not only works for but also exploits the opportunities of a world where research is digital from beginning to end—where seamless connections are the key to fully interoperable research.
The open research practices on COVID-19 are acting as a real-time lesson for how the system could work in the future. However, moving to an open system will not be trivial, especially as some current open access initiatives have led to publishing costs falling on individual researchers, which is not appropriate or sustainable in the long term. It requires a reimagining of the whole research infrastructure which includes a systemic, national and international rerouting of financial flows. This money is already in the system but is currently paid piecemeal. A system that was designed to be open would ensure the costs of that openness are built upfront into the research support and funding processes themselves so that, for example, the costs of data curation and the costs of final dissemination become simply part of the cost of doing research.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, groups and individuals in Australia and across the world have been working on a variety of initiatives to open and speed up science. These initiatives include making journal articles open (free to read, share and reuse—that is, the open access mentioned above) which both the ARC and NHMRCsupport through policies, national efforts to promote better data management in organisations such as the Australian Research Data Commons, supporting open infrastructure, and developing open educational resources (OERs). Indeed, OERs have become especially important in the past few weeks as many schools and universities have had to rapidly transition to online learning. Despite communities of practice and innovation by researchers and other experts, an assortment of organisations and companies, and repeated calls for a national approach, global and Australian initiatives remain largely fragmented. International efforts outside of times of emergencies have not had uniform buy-in and there is no ongoing nationally coordinated Australian effort for open science.
The current crisis offers an opportunity to refashion a better system—to make it open and FAIR so that not just humans but, increasingly, machines can be enlisted to ensure that research is maximised. For this to become the norm, it will require the reshaping of research systems and investment at many levels: practical, legal, financial and human. It also requires careful thought around equity, both of participation in research and access to that research, including consideration of initiatives such as the CARE Principles for Indigenous Data Governance.
Taking the FAIR principles as a guide illustrates some of the issues. For research to be findable requires that all research publications, the research data behind them and the researchers who produce the work are all uniquely identified through permanent machine-readable identifiers. For research to be seamlessly accessible, subscription or other barriers have to be removed, while at the same time there is a need to be mindful of the management of sharing sensitive data. For research to be interoperable requires a workforce that has the skills to curate research data and other outputs. Finally, for research to be fully reusable it needs a legal framework, which is achieved through the application of open licences.
How might this look in practice? In the current pandemic an effort coordinated by the White House gathered together a massive, freely-available, well-curated and machine-readable set of research on the COVID-19 pandemic which can be used by researchers globally for further research and which has already been downloaded thousands of times.
The COVID-19 pandemic is leading to rapid rethinking of how many parts of society function. It should also be the catalyst that finally lays to rest the myth that closed research as the norm is acceptable, either morally, economically or technically. We need a whole-of-system coordinated reshaping from grassroots initiatives through to national policy and political commitment, that aligns with international initiatives—such as the Sustainable Development Goals for which access to information is key—and which are sensitive to national needs. Though there are many issues to work through, as for the other challenges we are facing with COVID-19, these issues can be solved if we only choose to do so. Arguably, we can’t afford not to.
This topic’s links to the Sustainable Development Goals:
Views expressed in this feature remain those of the authors. Conflict of interest declaration: Professor Virginia Barbour is employed by AOASG, which advocates for open access.This article has been peer reviewed by the following experts: Associate Professor Lucy Montgomery Program Lead, Innovation in Knowledge Communication, Centre for Culture and Technology, Curtin University; and members of the Australian Academy of Science’s National Committee for Data in Science (Professor Virginia Barbour, a member of the committee, was not involved in the peer review process).
© 2020 Barbour and Borchert. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
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:
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.
By Mandy Henk, CEO Tohatoha (AOASG affiliate member)
I’m writing this as the medical and scientific community are working toward creating the knowledge we need to face a serious global public health emergency.
Unfortunately, as the number of cases of the novel coronavirus in China (COVID-19) rises, so has the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and confusion. As a community of people who care about sharing information, this is a time for us to step forward and work towards doing our bit to promote the spread of accurate and useful knowledge over false news designed to encourage hate, racism, and chaos. I wish you all the best as you work within your communities to educate and share the knowledge that will keep us all healthy and well.
But it’s also a time for us to rejoice in the realisation of the benefits of open access to scholarship and data. Open access is so crucial in times like these. Accurate, widely available information is how we will work together to make each other safe and healthy.
Leading on this is the Wellcome Trust and the 91 signatories have committed to ensure wide access to scientific and medical knowledge during this public emergency. Specifically, they have committed to work together to help ensure:
Open access communities can take real pride in our work today. Knowledge matters and sharing matters. The groundwork that we have laid is helping make the world a better place. We deserve a pat on our collective backs.
Please stay well and remember to look after those who are targets of hate and racism during this crisis. As the Director General of the World Health Organisation put it, “This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.”
Let’s hope the rest of 2020 brings more sharing, more knowledge, and most of all, solidarity and care for each other.
This blog originally appeared in the Tohatoha newsletter