Responding to the threat of COVID-19, science advisers from twelve countries have signed on to an open letter urging scientific publishers to make all COVID-19 research freely available to the public through PubMed Central or the World Health Organization’s COVID Database.
This is an emergency call for open science, the movement to make tools, data, and publications resulting from publicly funded research available to the public. Among the signers of this open letter was the Director of the United States Office of Science and Technology Policy, Kelvin Droegemeier, who is reportedly shaping an executive order to require similar availability for all federally funded research starting on the first day of publication.
Thankfully, major commercial publishers such as Elsevier and Springer have already announced that they will drop their paywalls on coronavirus research for the duration of the crisis. In doing so, a growing number of publishers are helping scientists work together to combat COVID-19 by embracing open access, the idea that research publications should be freely available for anyone to read.
That’s a great start. Open access ensures scientists are operating transparently and have access to the most current information available. This allows research efforts to move more quickly and eliminates barriers among researchers across the globe. The current crisis demonstrates how open access is a human rights issue. Potentially life-saving medical knowledge should not be restricted to those connected to institutions that can afford expensive journal subscriptions.
In the last month, researchers have embraced libre and open source research tools such as Nextstrain and open data platforms like Gisaid. The combined efforts of scientific researchers and free software programmers have accelerated research on coronavirus to unprecedented speeds. Medical professionals are even working together to share information about how to repair vital equipment while others build open hardware alternatives to proprietary devices. Readers should keep in mind when interpreting the findings of these efforts, that they can often be shared before undergoing peer-review.
In the past decade we’ve come a long way in bringing scientific research to the public, but we’re still far from realizing its full potential. Between a 2013 executive order and a 2018 California law, publishers are generally only required to make research freely available after a one-year embargo, and even then only if they receive federal or California state funding. While both are steps in the right direction, the current moment highlights why we need to go further. For fast-moving health research, a one-year embargo period severely reduces the value of an open access law for the public. A growing list of foundations have made that point clearly by requiring the research they fund to be open access on the day it’s published.
In Europe, today’s emergency support of open science is poised to become the status quo next year when the Plan S policy will require open access on the first day of publication. This means researchers will be in a better position to respond to future crises, and even more important discoveries will be made available through open access.
Researchers and publishers have made heroic strides this month, and we cannot forget the impact we are seeing in improving public access to knowledge. It will become increasingly important to push for the full benefit of research by changing more state and federal laws to make open science the default, and go beyond reading access to grant greater re-use freedoms. Let’s work together to help make the public better prepared for future crises.