The COVID-19 Pandemic Illustrates the Need for Open Science

We need more transparency in how scientific knowledge is created and communicated, especially in the context of a pandemic where science should guide important decisions affecting millions of people.

Lonni Besançon is a post-doctoral fellow at Monash University with a research focus on human-computer interaction and interactive scientific visualization.

@lonnibesancon


In a rush to provide timely responses to the pandemic, the scientific publishing industry fast-tracked some of the publishing processes, sometimes leaving little time for a rigorous peer-review, thus, potentially affecting the quality of research output.

Lonni Besançon and his co-authors (“Open Science Saves Lives: Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic”) express concerns about this alarming trend and calling for a wider and stricter adoption of the Open Science practices to ensure the quality is not compromised in the process.

We spoke with Besançon on the preliminary findings of the study, and his views on how we can improve science systems to deliver the most robust science in times of crisis and beyond.

How did the idea of this article come about?

It all started with the overflowing collection of papers and studies on COVID-19 that seemed to be reviewed and accepted in a matter of days, sometimes the same day the manuscript was submitted. As someone who sometimes waits for more than six months to get reviews back, such short reviewing times seemed quite extreme. I wanted to see if there was any conflict of interest, and together with a group of other interested scientists in various fields, we decided to investigate this further.

It turned out that among the 700 fast-tracked articles that were published within a day, and contained a mention of “COVID-19” and its related terms, 42.6% had an editorial conflict of interest.

Editorial conflicts of interest or shorter reviewing times do not necessarily mean poorer review quality, but the lack of transparency in the whole publishing process makes it difficult to verify scientific papers. That is one of the reasons why we need more transparency in academic publishing.

What changes did the pandemic bring to the scientific publishing scene?

Lots of publishers fast-tracked their peer-reviewing processes in response to the current pandemic, but it is hardly a novel practice – it existed on a lower scale during previous epidemics (e.g. Ebola, Zika). It probably will not change the scientific publishing industry in a long-term fashion.

There has been a concerning adoption of “Open Access” – some publishers gave free access to COVID-19 research but neglected to give access to older articles in virology, serology or vaccination, for instance, which would have made knowledge more accessible and resulted in a more holistic approach to research.

The good thing is that scientists use preprints way more, and this practice is likely to stay. It is encouraging because early communication of results is needed. Preprints have been used more than ever to communicate about recent results, and platforms hosting them have seen a surge in the number of submissions that they did not foresee (but responded to very well).

For other aspects of scientific publishing – such as adopting true Open Access, Open Data – we need much bigger systemic changes.

See also: The future of scientific publishing

This project will involve key stakeholders to undertake a major review of the role of publishing in the scientific enterprise. This will be used as a basis for identifying a set of principles for scientific publishing that can maximize the benefit of publishing for global science and for the wider audience for scientific research.

Is the pandemic a threat or an opportunity – is it a catalyst to Open Science?

The pandemic showed that we are very far from a wide and strict adoption of the Open Science principles and transparency in research, but it might very well serve as a catalyst to help us move forward. People are fed up with the current system. It would be so much easier if everything was publicly available. So far, the pandemic only catalyzed the adoption of partial Open Access and the number of preprints submitted to platforms.

How do you strike an optimal balance in reviewing quality and reviewing time in critical situations calling for fast solutions?

The balance is always difficult to find and there is, I would argue, a trade-off in the reviewing time and its quality. However, this is the reason why we call for reviews to be open so that all discussions are publicly available, such that reviewers’ doubts about the manuscript are clearly accessible alongside the article. Publishers should also adapt their platforms to support post-publication peer-reviewing, which would eventually make research more robust.

What message would you like to send to scientific publishing stakeholders?

To all: adopt transparency, it is the only path forward for a rigorous and trustworthy science. Let’s be transparent on everything so that all the data is available. The public trust in research has been severely hindered by all the debates around dubious research articles.

To scientists: share what you have as much as you can. No one will scrutinize your code or data for efficiency, just for validity. No research project is ever perfect, but being transparent will help you and others in using that work and, therefore, directly help your career.

To institutions: value reviewing and scientific communication to the public. Leave researchers some time for this. Expect fewer publications. Value the transparency of the research. Stop using metrics to evaluate researchers. Appreciate scientific communication.

To funders: I would recommend the same. The current funding selection scheme has a lot of flaws and some funding agencies are now experimenting with random attribution of money to create more openness to ideas that are not mainstream and, therefore, likely to make a change. Maybe it is time to change how we give money to researchers.

To the public: as frustrating as it is, be patient and trust the research community. The huge majority of researchers are doing their best to conduct good studies and find solutions to important problems, but it takes time.

What are your aspirations and hopes for the future of scientific publishing?

I hope that we can find a way to make papers more accessible to laypeople, for reporting to be transparent, and for post-publication peer-review to be a standard, not an exception.

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