Open access: how COVID-19 will change the way research findings are shared

During the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers and publishers have pulled together to publish their outputs at an unprecedented rate. So, how have they responded? And how will this change research culture and the way findings are disseminated in future?

An engineer holds up a rack of experimental coronavirus vaccine candidates
Robert Kiley: "Ensuring that all research is published open access must become one of the positive outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic."
Credit: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

Robert Kiley

Researchers have embraced preprints and open publishing 

As the rush intensifies to find ways to treat and manage COVID-19, one thing is clear: researchers – along with their counterparts in industry and the health services – need unrestricted access to the research literature.

Traditional publishing models – where the typical time from submission to publication is around nine months – are too slow to respond to such a fast-moving pandemic. As a group of US patient and disease advocacy organisations recently stated, "information critical to health should no longer be held hostage by arcane publishing".

Throughout this pandemic, researchers have embraced open publishing platforms and preprint servers to share their findings as quickly as possible. The first article related to COVID-19 was published on bioRxiv on 19 January – just 20 days after the Chinese government informed the World Health Organization of ‘cases of pneumonia of unknown etiology detected in Wuhan’. And, as of May 2020, around 850 COVID-19-related preprints are being published every week.

Preprints, by definition, have not gone through the peer review process. There will always be some cases where the information is not scientifically robust, but researchers are using their critical skills to call them out. The preprint which suggested there were ‘uncanny’ similarities between COVID-19 and HIV is one example. After being criticised on social media by researchers around the world, it was withdrawn 48 hours later. 

As well as an increase in preprints, the Wellcome Open Research publishing platform has witnessed a spike in COVID-19-related article submissions. The articles are published before peer review but, in contrast to preprints, the peer review is conducted on the platform in an open and transparent way. The platform also allows access to the underlying data for each article, which means that other researchers can build on the findings.

Publishers are making their COVID-19 content freely available  

Following a global call from science advisors, more than 50 publishers have agreed to make all their COVID-19 and related content freely available and accessible through PubMed Central and Europe PMC. 

More than 50,000 research articles have already been made available through this initiative, which will complement the open access research already published.

Crucially, this content is licensed in ways that support text data mining and machine learning technologies, allowing researchers and machines to search for and discover new and unexpected connections. One group of scientists has developed a digital coronavirus ‘knowledgebase’, which uses AI technology to organise large amounts of COVID-19 data as it becomes available. 

It’s difficult to guess which research will prove most useful in addressing the challenge, so some publishers – such as the Royal Society and the Biochemical Society – are going further and making all their content openly available. Others are speeding up their processes so that manuscripts can be published as soon as possible, or relaxing their rules so that authors have more time to complete revisions.

Publication practices must be improved after COVID-19 

Subscription publishers have stepped up to respond to this global emergency by removing paywalls and allowing content to be reused. But this has also shone a spotlight on the shortcomings of the traditional scholarly publishing system, which is not fit for purpose in the 21st century.   

A business model in which 75% of the research literature is only accessible to paying subscribers is unacceptable, especially as much of that research has been funded by the public purse. 

There are other huge challenges ahead of us – like climate change, mental health and other infectious diseases. Ensuring that everyone can access research for free gives us the best chance of addressing them. We need to build on the great progress that has been made in response to COVID-19 and move towards a fully open access world. 

At Wellcome, we require any research outputs that arise from our funding to be made open access. We believe that this is the most effective way of making sure any findings can be read and built upon. 

Our open access policy has been in place for more than 15 years and, in January 2021, will be updated to align with Plan S. This initiative requires all research articles to be published open access, with no embargo, and licensed in ways which facilitate full re-use.

Peer review will continue to play a key role in assessing research findings, but in the future we anticipate that these reviews will be applied directly on the preprint, as is the case with submissions to Wellcome Open Research. In this scenario, scholarly journals would continue to exist, but with a focus on curating the literature rather than publishing original research articles.

Building a better research culture and improving publication practices are within our grasp. Seizing this opportunity and ensuring that all research is published open access must become one of the positive outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic.