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Immediate free access to research: The scholarly response to COVID-19

Published March 16, 2020 by Alison Moore

This blog post was contributed by David Gill, a former SFU Reference Librarian.

Disclaimer: This blog post is about the scholarly community's response to COVID-19 and does not provide medical advice. I am a librarian, not a medical doctor or a health sciences researcher. For more information about SFU's response to COVID-19, please see the SFU community frequently asked questions about COVID-19 webpage.

Recently while I was assisting students with their research questions at the Library's Research Help Desk, I stumbled across a headline in Nature: "Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free."

Screenshot of Springer Nature Website with header about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research.Screenshot of Springer Nature Website with header about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research

Clicking on the link in the header led me to a different page on the Springer Nature website:

Screenshot of Springer Nature Website with more details about how they are releasing research for freeScreenshot of Springer Nature Website with more details about how they are releasing research for free

As stated on that information page, in response to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, Springer Nature has made a list of blogs, research articles, reviews, comments, books and chapters of books related to coronavirus “free to access”. Free to access is not to be confused with open access, where “readers do not require a subscription or any other form of payment either personally or through their university or library to access the content”. Rather, Springer Nature has removed the “paywalls” for selected resources for researchers and others to access. (It is unclear how long the ordinarily paywalled information will be free to access.) That page also mentions preprints (a paper that has not undergone peer-review or publisher formatting) and reinforces the importance of sharing research fast, whether it be data or articles, to deal with the emergency.

After reading about Springer Nature's decision, I was curious about the scholarly community’s response to the coronavirus. Were all scholarly publishers making research relevant to the coronavirus freely available?

"Coronavirus": A note on the name

On February 11 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) named the disease "COVID-19". On the same day, a preprint article was released on bioRxiv (a preprint server) that named the virus "SARS-CoV-2". There is controversy with the virus being named SARS because of the association to the 2003 SARS outbreak might induce “unnecessary fear for some populations especially in Asia” according to the WHO. For clarity, throughout this blog post, I will be referring to both COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 as the "coronavirus".

A funder's response: The Wellcome Trust statement

One of the things that I was intrigued by on Springer Nature’s page was a mention of a “consensus statement”. This statement is called Sharing Research Data and Findings Relevant to the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak (hereafter called the "2020 Wellcome statement") from the Wellcome Trust, a charity and funding agency focused on medical research. This 2020 Wellcome statement reaffirmed principles from the 2016 Wellcome Statement on Data Sharing in Public Health Emergencies, which focused on the Zika outbreak. The 2020 Wellcome statement contained a list of commitments for the scholarly community in response to coronavirus and support the WHO with their mission. Along with coronavirus, these commitments are meant to be used for future outbreaks as well. The 2020 Wellcome statement reads, "[s]pecifically, we commit to work together to help ensure:

  • all peer-reviewed research publications relevant to the outbreak are made immediately open access, or freely available at least for the duration of the outbreak
  • research findings relevant to the outbreak are shared immediately with the WHO upon journal submission, by the journal and with author knowledge
  • research findings are made available via preprint servers before journal publication, or via platforms that make papers openly accessible before peer review, with clear statements regarding the availability of underlying data
  • researchers share interim and final research data relating to the outbreak, together with protocols and standards used to collect the data, as rapidly and widely as possible - including with public health and research communities and the WHO
  • authors are clear that data or preprints shared ahead of submission will not pre-empt its publication in these journals"

The commitments were signed by organizations around the world, including scholarly publishers, health science funding organizations (such as the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research), and universities. 

The response from scholarly publishers

Along with Springer Nature, several publishers have created webpages on coronavirus and made research that would ordinarily be paywalled free to access. The organization of the websites, the information provided, and the intended audience differs between publishers. Here is a summary:

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM)
NEJM created a webpage that contains a variety of resources. Along with curated free to access research articles, they have perspectives, commentaries, videos, podcasts, and a map. For clinicians, NEJM page has frequent updates on the latest research related to the coronavirus through their Journal Watch summarizes. In 2016, NEJM collaborated with Chinese researchers to translate selected works into Chinese. Consequently, NEJM has provided some but not all translations of coronavirus resources in Chinese on this website.

Cambridge University Press
Cambridge created an online collection where users can limit a selected amount of book chapters and journal articles by open access, free to access, journal, etc. Additionally, they provided access to an upcoming commentary that has not undergone publisher formatting. Since the resources are strictly book chapters, journal articles, or commentaries, the audience might be researchers and potential clinicians. Unlike NEJM, Cambridge University Press does not indicate collection contains Chinese languages resources or optional translations.

Elsevier provides a variety of information sources on its webpage including commentary, videos, research articles, book chapters, and preprints. Elsevier also has a section on its coronavirus page for clinicians such as overviews and care plans. Their webpage provides links to Chinese language resources, although the majority of the resources were published by Chinese publishers. There doesn’t appear to be an option for Chinese translations for resources published by Elsevier including letters, peer-reviewed articles, and preprints. Similar to NEJM, in 2005, Elsevier and the Chinese publisher Science Press collaborated on a translation center for academic resources from both publishers to be translated and distributed in the globally and Chinese market. Elsevier developed a collection that can be refined by a variety of filters and unlike Cambridge, the collection has options for languages other than English including in Chinese. Results can be further refined by journal country and according to the collection, Chinese language works are published by journals in China, Taiwan, and Macao. It is unclear if the Science Press collaboration continues to this day and if the translated resources are free to access in the collection.

Similar to the other publishers, Wiley made research related to coronavirus freely available. In its main webpage on coronavirus, Wiley has curated resources by topics including understanding coronavirus and epidemiology and prevention. Resources include journal articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries. Similar to Cambridge, Wiley created collections (articles and for book chapters) for its free to access resources for users to filter. There isn’t a language filter for either collection.

Taylor & Francis
Taylor & Francis made their research relevant to coronavirus free to access on its curated site and in a collection. The collection does not have a language filter.

Very fast research, and retractions

Karla Satchell from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine discussed with the Washington Post the unprecedented speed of coronavirus research. Unlike ordinary situations where scientists “try to hide what they’re doing, don’t want to talk about what they’re doing, and everybody out there is like: This is the case we don’t worry about egos, we don’t worry about who’s first, we just care about solving the problem. The information flow has been really fast”. The Post article further describes how researchers are sharing data, experimenting, and releasing their results quickly. Some of the main tools for sharing information quickly by researchers are preprint repositories like bioRxiv and medRxiv. According to Science Magazine, about 280 preprint papers on coronavirus have been released in the same time span that 260 peer-reviewed articles on coronavirus have been published. This is worthy of note, as having peer-reviewed journals nearly keep up with the speed at which preprints are released is incredible considering how slow peer review can be. Journals have acknowledged that they are fast-tracking publication for articles about coronavirus. An example of this is the NEJM, who have published articles within 48 to 24 hours of submission.

That said, uploading research through preprints does have its critics, including scientist Michael Shiloh. Shiloh tweeted “this is why preprints can be bad” in reference to a paper uploaded on bioRxiv that purported similarities between coronavirus and HIV which lead to conspiracy theories that humans engineered it. Soon after it was uploaded, scientists on Twitter and bioRxiv critiqued the paper and it has since been retracted. Consequently, bioRxiv has inserted a special warning for every paper on coronavirus outlining that the research is preliminary, not-peer reviewed, not a guide for clinical practice, and should not be reported by the media “as established information”.

In order to handle the influx of preprints during public health emergencies, the Wellcome Trust awarded funding in 2018 to Monica Grandados to set up Rapid PRreview where “researchers [can provide] quick high-level evaluation of preprints via a series of questions that assess the originality and soundness of the findings”. In early March 2020, Nature collaborated with the Wellcome Trust in response to the “unprecedented surge in (unrefereed) preprints” to create Outbreak Science Rapid Prereview using papers from medRxiv, bioRxiv, and arXiv preprint repositories. Recognizing the potential problems of non-peer reviewed preprints, Micheal A Johansson and Daniela Saderi for Nature wrote that “research to support outbreak response needs to be fast and open, too, as do mechanisms to review outbreak-related research. Help other scientists, as well as the media, journals and public-health officials, to find the most important COVID-19 preprints now."

In this rush to publish, peer-reviewed journals haven’t escaped critics either. NEJM published a correspondence to the editor claiming "asymptomatic transmission," or in plain language that “someone who has no symptoms from infection with the virus, named 2019-nCoV, can still transmit it to others”. The correspondence described a businesswoman who had met with four people who fell ill with coronavirus in Munich but she had no signs of symptoms. The researchers relied on information from the four ill people about the businesswoman, rather than speaking to her. It turns out she had experienced symptoms of coronavirus too. One of the authors of the correspondence, Michael Hoelscher at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich Medical Center, told Science Magazine that “the need to share information as fast as possible along with NEJM’s push to publish early, created a lot of pressure.” It’s important to note here that correspondence aren’t “typically peer reviewed”. With this said, Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Science Magazine that it’s important to read research critically especially during this coronavirus outbreak because “peer review is lighter in the middle of an epidemic than it is at normal speed, and also the quality of the data going into the papers is necessarily more uncertain." For more information about reading and evaluating research papers, check out Critical Reading of Epidemiological Papers: A Guide. (Note: another more recent preprint asserts that transmissions of coronavirus can happen asymptomatically, including a paper about cases in Nanjing, China and the Princess Cruises ship.)

Paywalls and "immorality"

While large academic publishers are providing free to access research on coronavirus on their websites, there has also been a response on Reddit and other community forums outside of academia. Shrine (his user name) and other online archivists have been galvanized around the issue of open access to research as they perceive locking away research under paywalls as immoral. This perception came to Shrine after reading a 2015 New York Times op-ed by Liberian doctors titled Yes, We Were Warned about Ebola. In the op-ed, the authors describe how public health officials thought Ebola was unknown to West Africa until 2013. But in a systematic review the authors conducted, they learned of a 1983 European study that discussed the virus outbreak in Liberia and few other studies in 1986 that discussed Ebola in Liberia and other West African countries. The authors mention there wasn’t collaboration between Liberian scientists and European scientists in the 1980s studies. Additionally, the research was published in European journals and Liberian doctors would have had to pay “about half a week’s salary” to access this research. 

Open access could save lives: "Just open everything"

For the introduction to the curated free to access resources, Wiley posted a letter from Charles Yang, the Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Clinical Practice. In his reasoning why the resources are now free to access, he wrote “it’s in these times of crisis where communities come together even more.” Although it is true that scientists and the scholarly community have responded to the coronavirus outbreak in unprecedented ways, freeing these resources demonstrates how problematic paywalls are to science communication. Vincent Larivière, an information scientist at the University of Montreal, advocates for open science during outbreak and non-outbreak periods of time. He told the CBC that when publishers say “we’re opening everything because it’s important that we advance things fast. Well the flip side of this argument is that your normal behaviour is to put barriers to science. This virus is dangerous and deadly, but there's lots of other diseases that are dangerous and deadly, and for which opening could save lives. So if you really want to go in that direction, just open everything.”

For information on publishing in open access journals, be sure to check out SFU Library’s guide on Open Access. For information on data management and the research data repository, be sure to check out the library’s guide

I've made a group library available in Zotero for resources on scholarly communication and coronavirus. 


-- Post by David Gill