perth grass

By Professor Cameron Neylon, COKI Project Co-lead

The threat of COVID-19 to health and economies has sparked an unprecedented growth in open access to research outputs.

There have been extraordinary outcomes from international collaboration: 53 viral genome sequences were available and analysed by February – in comparison to the three months it took to determine the sequence of the SARS virus. 

Within a month of the sequence being released, the first structures of potential drug and antibody targets from the virus were being released; a process that not long ago took years. By the beginning of April the BioRxiv, a site for rapid bioscience communication, had 1048 reports covering the characteristics, structure, sequence, epidemiology and treatment of the virus. 

Research is being shared more quickly and widely, reducing the duplication of effort and enabling infectious disease experts and health system operators to build on expert knowledge as soon as it becomes available. In addition to reducing overall research costs and fostering international collaboration, this approach is already saving lives.

But while the urgent threat of COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on the benefits of open access, a far more significant lesson is yet to be widely learned. In the first three months of this year, COVID-19 has claimed 40,000 lives. While this is a terrible toll, more than 45,000 people die of heart disease each day on average, and thousands more die of cancer. 

In the first three months of this year, more than 4.1 million people around the world are likely to have died from heart disease and 3.1 million of cancer. The death rate from both of these diseases has grown steadily since the millennium, but they have not inspired the same levels of urgent action on open access and collaboration; perhaps because they have been around for a long time.

The tale is similar with other diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease, where families and patients with early onset of the disease have clamoured for open access to the latest research findings, but have been denied. Millions struggle every day with rare diseases, and with chronic conditions. Why are their conditions less important or deserving of open access, collaboration and focus than COVID-19? 

Open Access publishers have been opening their virtual doors to enable critical information to be shared between researchers and the public for years, but until now, the majority of research has continued to be published out of reach, behind subscription paywalls.

During the COVID-19 crisis, conventional publishers have joined the trend, throwing open their paywall doors as one to support the global fight against a disease – and universities that need to find new ways to take classes online. 

Open access issues also have a significant impact beyond the domain of health sciences. Some commentators have suggested that the COVD-19 crisis is providing an accelerated view of the looming climate crisis – where monumental events are expected to require the world’s greatest research teams to collaborate in a bid to rapidly deliver fresh solutions.

For decades requests for open access to research information has fallen on deaf ears, despite entreaties by patients with rare diseases and the doctors that treat them – as well as many others. The great lesson of COVID-19 is not only how we can save lives, protect economies and support communities by freely sharing research data and discoveries. But the great question posed by the crisis is whether we will have to learn the lesson of sharing information and collaboration all over again once the crisis is past?

It would be easy, but unfair to jump to the conclusion that it is traditional publishers exclusively wearing the black hats in this scenario. Certainly, some publishers have been making handsome profits by providing paywall-protected access to journals that are perceived by many to be the most prestigious in the world. However, no publisher can operate without incurring costs, and the systems of publication and rewards for researchers and universities that became entrenched by the end of the 20th century cannot be easily dismantled. 

A lot of power lies in the hands of a few core publishing houses, but it is the choice of universities and researchers to chase the prestige that those publishers hand out, and the rankings success that follows it that maintains that power. It is the choices of governments to pay greater attention to simplistic rankings and quantitative assessment that reinforces those choices. To build a knowledge production system capable of responding to today’s challenges we need alternatives to the traditional and entrenched success measures of the 20th century.

This issue introduces the second remarkable lesson from the COVID-19 crisis. One of the challenges for improving access to publications and data is that there have been inadequate systems to record their usage and impact. At Curtin University we have been studying these issues, trying to build out the systems to allow us to understand the growth of open access. Our Curtin Open Knowledge Initiative (COKI) project is giving us insights into the past growth of open access data for individual universities, university groupings and national university systems that have been challenging to ascertain before.

While this is a great insight in terms of historic data trends, and provides new insights into university performance and engagement, the COVID-19 crisis provides an additional opportunity to measure in real time how useful open access to research really is. Publishers have not only been opening medical research content, but also a huge range of other materials to support students who can no longer access library buildings, researchers working from home or having to shift their focus, as well as a wider public, looking for intellectual sustenance, and yes, entertainment and distraction from their day to day challenges.

This is an extraordinary opportunity to measure the impact of open access around the world – providing insights that are central to the role and value of universities and research organisations into the future. We are currently seeking to collaborate with publishers to collect and analyse data on the world’s largest experiment on access to research content provision ever.

Amidst threats to health, finances and the wellbeing of the university community, many have said that universities will never be the same after this crisis. 

As the impact of open access measures throughout the COVID-19 crisis are measured and analysed, there is a singular opportunity for universities to not just return to being the same, but to be better – and to be recognised as a critical resource to uncover solutions that we require in future.