COVID-19 exposes an enduring need for Open Access

Oct 14, 2020 · Abbey Elder

“There has never been such a rapid global collective effort to fight one disease” - Karen Grépin, Associate Professor of Public Health, University of Hong Kong (IHE

Before COVID (2017- Spring 2020) 

When COVID-19 first swept across the globe in the winter and spring of 2020, Open Access (OA) publishing, pre-print sharing, and other aspects of open science were at the forefront of discussions about the future of scholarship. Many research foundations had established OA policies that required funded research outputs be made public (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, n.d.). Plan S, an initiative for OA publishing in Europe, was prompting discussions about how to incentivize open access publishing (CoalitionS, n.d.). Meanwhile a global coalition of higher education institutions and non-profits launched the Invest in Open Infrastructure (IOI) project to encourage the development and use of open software, services, and protocols that can support the needs of the academic ecosystem freely (IOI, n.d.). Closer to home, Iowa State University Library launched a new research data repository, expanded open access funding support, grew their OA Digital Press and continues to provide self-archiving services through the Digital Repository. Open science infrastructure has enabled scholars to share and collaborate on a global scale, and the impact of open science and scholarship has been made evident in 2020. 

After COVID 

Sharing research outputs openly was not rare before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic; however, the speed and breadth of scholarly sharing skyrocketed in response to the dire need to investigate and understand the virus (Tavernier, 2020). Commercial publishers like Elsevier and Springer made access to COVID-19 research “open” for a limited window (Hiltzik, 2020), while pre-print servers such as medRxiv (www.medrxiv.org) struggled to define themselves to journalists and members of the public hungry for information but unfamiliar with how preprints work (Ganley, 2020). The thirst for information about COVID-19 is palpable, and the same level of information sharing could have a major impact on other research areas as well. Now, when OA has become an easier choice for many, it is clear that the prevailing system of locking research away behind paywalls has fostered inequality by denying scholars access to the newest findings in their field. Without access, how can we improve, innovate, or learn from one another’s work?  

What now? 

As researchers continue to embrace Open Access and open science in the wake of COVID-19, it is clear that we cannot go back to the same “closed infrastructure as default” setting that some assumed was necessary for scholarly research to be successful in the past. As Mir (2020) argues, “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.” Consider the impact of your research’s findings and where it can do the most good: locked behind a paywall or freely shared where scholars, practitioners, and citizen scientists around the world can learn from it?