Toward a Post-Covid World of Open Access

The global scale of the current pandemic has led to what feels like a remarkably unprecedented level of solidarity in a world pulling together (while standing apart) amid this common cause of fighting the spread of Covid-19. In the area in which I work (from home) of scholarly communication, publishers have been not only creating public access to Covid-19 collections of research and professional resources, from Elsevier’s COVID-19 Clinical Toolkit to Wiley’s Coronavirus Resources & News. Wellcome Trust has reaffirmed its 2016 “Statement on Data Sharing in Public Health Emergencies,” which has been signed by every major biomedical publisher and research funder. It asserts that those who signed are committed “to work together to help ensure” in such situations that “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,” and that “research findings are made available via preprint servers,” that is prior to the peer-review and publication process, adding greatly to the immediacy of the openness, as well as the clarity about the work still requiring further scrutiny before being accepted as established studies.

This opening of the publishing process is combined with a commitment also arising from the Wellcome Trust statement that within the global research community, “researchers [will] 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.” It amounts to a full-blown engagement with “open science” on a scale, and with a moral imperative and sense of urgency, that has not been seen previously. The impact of this response to an emergency that is only a matter of months old is reflected in the work of such groups as the COVID-19 Johns Hopkins Clinical Research Coordinating Committee, which lists a dozen research protocols underway, while the EU Clinical Trials Register lists 72 such trials related to Covid-19, as of April 13, 2020.

On top of all this, and in response to to the extraordinary closing of university campuses, with its shelter-in-place move to online delivery of post-secondary courses, publishers have also opened access to resources in the humanities and social sciences, most notably perhaps with Project Muse as a platform for over 60 publishers and university presses that are making their journals and books freely available during the pandemic. Consider MIT Press, for example, there’s now free access to 544 ebooks, among the first examples being this trio of titles Access Contested, Access Controlled, and Access Denied. Well, it’s now access allowed for these and many other publisher titles at least until June 30, 2020, at this point.

When the pandemic subsides, and a post-Covid-19 world gradually and likely haltingly emerges, among the many, many things we may consider is the difference made by this “natural” experiment in open access and open science. How many more, if any, articles and books were consulted and of what sort of things did people take advantage?

We might also consider, given how easily we slipped into this openness that much of Covid-19 openness was not simply given away at publisher expense, as a lot of the content has continued through this crisis to be supported by library subscriptions. This has inspired Kamran Naim, head of Open Science at CERN, to start exploring with libraries and publishers whether there might be ways of extending this Covid-open to a post-Covid open. His idea is to build on his 2019 initiative with the publisher Annual Reviews of having libraries subscribe to open, much as a number of us also did with Berghahn Books, coming out of a 2017 blogpost here. Both of these initiatives have been successful, with the libraries previously subscribing to Annual Review and Berghahn titles agreeing to continuing subscribing with the pilot journals from each publisher (14 in total) going open access for the first time in 2020. (CERN has been leading a related initiative, SCOAP3, in which 3,000 libraries support open access to a dozen particle physics journals.)

What would it take, Kamran is asking librarians and publishers, to have research libraries pledge to publishers to continue their subscriptions into 2021 and beyond while the publishers pledge to everyone to keep the research open in the post-Covid world that cannot arrive fast enough for us. Today’s “public health emergency,” brought on by Covid-19, has raised public awareness of how we can bring science to bear on such scourges, and there is no shortage of other afflictions to address, just as we have every reason to encourage public engagement with the social sciences, humanities, and other areas of research and scholarship.

Yet if a pledge to subscribe to open in the post-Covid world to come is not reassurance enough, given the prolonged economic recovery that that world is bound to face, I happen to be working on another approach to bring about universal open access to research and scholarship. I am developing a case (see draft here) to amend copyright law, beginning in the United States, that will see compulsory licensing applied to research publications, which will be immediately open access, with their scholarly publishers fairly compensated by the principal institutional users and funders of this work.

What better way to support the contribution that open science is making to moving us beyond Covid-19 than to reach out and encourage a research librarian to make a subscribe-to-open pledge or to consider ways of strengthening the case for copyright reform to make open access to research and scholarship more than a response to public health emergencies on the scale of this global pandemic. Kamran and I would welcome that.

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