Covid-19 and Access to Scientific Knowledge

The current pandemic further exposes the need for open science, unlocking the canon of science and prioritizing the interests of the public, writes Geoffrey Boulton.

Geoffrey Boulton is Regius Professor of Geology Emeritus, University of Edinburgh; Governing Board member of the International Science Council; formerly member of the UK Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology; formerly Chair of Royal Society Science Policy Centre; formerly President of the Commission on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA)

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into high relief a dilemma faced by scientists in responding to the urgent global need for relevant scientific knowledge. The record of published science, the canon of science, is a vital source of ideas, of observations and data that have relevance to an immense variety of humanity’s needs and pressing societal challenges, of which the current global pandemic is a paramount example. Sadly, access to that canon that is in the hands of major corporate publishers of science is in general inhibited by high pay walls that prioritise the financial interests of commercial investors above the interests of science and of the public.

A large part of the canon of science that has been produced through public funding is routinely privatised through the actions of academic researchers who willingly gift copyright to commercial publishers whose first responsibility is to their shareholders rather than to science. It is part of a uniquely asymmetric business model in which scientists provide their work freely, or at their own cost, to publishers, give up copyright to publishers, staff publishers’ editorial committees, provide peer reviews freely, and then buy back their published work at inflated costs, and in most cases are legally disbarred from interrogating, through text and data mining, the very published canon of science to which they have contributed. All of the largest commercial publishers are now based in Europe or North America, and regularly report profit margins of over 30%, funded largely from the contributions of publicly funded libraries and researchers, to which they offer bundled journal deals. It is estimated that prices of high impact journals are typically over 10 times the real cost of production. This unique profitability has continued even as the former costly print-intensive role of publishers in typesetting, formatting and distribution has disappeared. It is a profitability that acts most strongly against the interests of low and middle income countries, both as authors and as readers.

This dilemma has been illustrated in the Covid-19 pandemic, when scientific authorities from 12 countries, including the US, Italy and South Korea, urged corporate publishers to make their papers relevant to Covid-19 openly and promptly available: “[we] urge publishers to voluntarily agree to make their Covid-19 and coronavirus-related publications, and the available data supporting them, immediately accessible.” A petition with 2,000 signatures by 3rd March stated: “Thousands of scientific studies about the coronavirus are locked behind subscription paywalls, blocking scientists from getting access to research needed to discover antiviral treatments and a vaccine to stop the virus.” There has been a valuable but limited response from corporate publishers, extending open access for a limited period of three months.

In a world that needs science more than ever for the many challenges that it faces, a publishing model that privatises publicly funded knowledge and places it behind high paywalls is profoundly dysfunctional both for science and the global public interest. If a state were to freely give public assets to a private company for the purpose of private gain, it would reap public ire. That is precisely what is happening to one of the most profoundly important public assets, knowledge. The demonstrably reluctant acknowledgement of the public interest by corporate publishers should be a profound signal, to scientists, governments and citizens, that this system must be changed.

The future must be that of open access scientific publishing, where authors do not gift copyright to publishers, where scientific results are accessed freely and where article publishing charges that reflect the real cost of production are born by researchers or their funders. Although major corporate publishers will continue to manoeuvre to protect their profitability, open access publishing is on the rise, and the increasing number of science funders that require those they fund to publish in open access journals, such as in the European Commission’s  plan S, will further encourage that trend. The International Science Council is in the process of building a coalition for action with the purpose of driving change. The time has now come for scientists themselves to give up their addiction to so-called “high impact” journals and to act decisively in the interests of science and an open science future.