There have been heated debates about how exactly to deal with the recent Covid-19 pandemic. But one thing most people can agree on (besides being ecstatic if/when this is fully behind us) is that the benefits of Open Science have never been clearer.  

Open Science (OS) describes a broad set of activities and practices aimed at making scientific processes and output more collaborative, accessible, transparent and effective. Through technological and cultural change, Open Science can enhance the ways research, education and innovation are carried out and disseminated via digital tools, networks and media.  

Currently, the most widespread element of Open Science within scholarly communications is Open Access (OA). Open Access makes published articles free to read, share and re-use in accordance with the license applied. Often, Open Access publishing is financed via a per-article payment from the author or author’s research funder, as opposed to the model under which readers pay subscription fees in exchange for access. However, the crisis made it crucial to remove all barriers to access. So we made hundreds of articles related to Covid-19 immediately and freely available, regardless of the model they were published under, and signed a statement affirming our commitment to doing so. Even as the intensity of the pandemic is seeming to abate, the articles remain free, with about 100 of them fully Open Access. (Karger Open Access articles are published under a Creative Commons license, which requires the authors’ signatures. It is not possible to make previously published articles retroactively Open Access, and authors do not always sign this agreement.)    

Preprints and Open Data

Two other Open Science elements that have gained traction are preprints – essentially the manuscript of an article before it is submitted to a journal and thus before peer review – and open data, with authors making their underlying research data freely available, usually via a specialized repository. Both have been instrumental to advancing knowledge about the Coronavirus and how it affects human health, its transmission, prevention and more.  

While peer review helps ensure research findings presented in scientific articles have been scrutinized and approved by experts in the field, the process of peer review and publication can be lengthy. Preprints allow scientists to share new findings as quickly as they can write them so they can reach other scientists, policy makers, and the public. Our policies support authors who choose to share preprints before submission, and we collaborate with the well-known preprint servers medRxiv and bioRxiv to allow authors to submit papers to some of our journals via an easy transfer of their preprint.  

The Danger of Infodemics

That said, preprints should be considered with caution, as we saw amid the desperation for news and cures: Preprints helped to swiftly disseminate urgently needed information, but they were also used by some to feed an “infodemic” of sometimes false or misinterpreted information that even hindered efforts at times. The information they contain is not (yet) peer reviewed – that is, vetted by experts. Journalists and others in the public may not emphasize or recognize that the conclusions are tentative and may even be disproven in the future. And by the time any findings in preprints might be refuted, it’s too late: They may have spread across traditional and social media, with people all over the world acting on the advice. The Covid-19 pandemic produced some notorious situations with preliminary information being proven wrong or at least inconclusive. That’s a perfectly normal course of events in research, and getting feedback from other scientists can be one of the benefits of posting a preprint. But the early, unconfirmed nature of preprints can harm individuals if they act on the early findings and either doubt or never see subsequent reports with different recommendations.  

Open and FAIR

Informing the public that preprints contain preliminary, unreviewed information and educating science journalists about their use may help. But another aspect of Open Science, open data, can also help by allowing other scientists to check the preliminary studies. Research data is usually defined as the underlying evidence needed to validate and replicate findings reported in an article. If that data is open and “FAIR” (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable), others can try to validate and reproduce it. Research funders and institutions increasingly require authors to make their data open, and we have introduced comprehensive guidance for authors on how and why to share their data, which we strongly encourage at all times. 

Some of our actions during the pandemic may not be strictly classified as Open Science, but they share the same spirit of striving to empower rapid, unrestricted knowledge exchange to stabilize public health.  

For example:  

  • Despite the sudden volatility in everyone’s work environment, we processed a huge surge of submitted articles, in particular related to Covid-19, to maintain the timely flow of information. 
  • We continue to publish and curate pertinent articles across all our publications and platforms, from our virology-related journals to The Waiting Room blog. This content covers everything from helping Coronavirus patients with co-morbidities, to diagnosis, to societal and mental-health impacts, to olfactory disorders and treatment.   
  • We made our Fast Facts medical handbook series free to access online – and will keep it free beyond the pandemic. We also created free Fast Facts eLearning courses to help maintain education and engagement when people were restricted from interacting live.   
  • We granted more access to non-Open Access content for institutions in need.  
  • We upgraded subscription access, expanded licenses and added features for a host of customers and ePartners.
  • We gave free access to especially relevant education courses 
  • We created many more free webinars and online training sessions. 

At the core of what we do is connecting and advancing health sciences throughout the entire knowledge cycle. Open Science practices and other support make this as efficient and beneficial as possible for the greatest number of people. We are grateful for the many ‘front line workers’, scientists, and policy makers who have worked to improve all outcomes in the face of the pandemic, and we’re rather proud of the contribution we could make to the global fight against Covid-19.    

Further Reading: Scholarly Communication in Times of Crisis: The response of the scholarly communication system to the COVID-19 pandemic by the Research on Research Institute (RoRI) 

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