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Open Access lessons during Covid-19: No lockdown for research results!


The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world as we know it, and research is no exception. Globally, scientists are working together at unprecedented speed, in a race against time to understand the virus and its treatment, sharing data and results as fast as they can. Journal editors are cooperating and becoming more flexible. Embargoes are lifted, paywalls abolished and preprint servers like MedrXiv and bioRxiv have accelerated research evaluation and discussion. Suddenly the demand for instant access to the relevant research literature has become self-evident. How could the argument for full and immediate Open Access still be ignored?

The global research response demands Open Access

Governments and international organisations, working hand in hand with the research community,  have risen to the challenge in an unprecedented global effort for openness. On 20 April the European Commission launched a Covid-19 data sharing platform for researchers. On 4 May, the Commission registered €7.4 billion in pledges from donors worldwide to the Coronavirus Global Response pledging event. The Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation mobilized new funding for research into a vaccine. On 13 March, science advisors from a dozen countries asked scientific publishers in an open letter to make all research related to the coronavirus and Covid-19 freely available. Over 50,000 research articles were rapidly made public thanks to this emergency initiative. On 28 May, the G7 Science and Technology Ministers issued a Declaration on Covid-19 recognizing the importance of open science for government-sponsored epidemiological and related research.

Despite these good intentions, a recent study shows that the number of publications on pandemic studies behind a paywall is still growing faster than the Open Access ones. With such funding being spent on understanding Covid-19, developing vaccines, and refining interventions, the resulting research must remain fully Open Access for it to have the greatest impact. National policies should reflect the need to move to Open Access as soon as possible.

Temporary access is not Open Access

By opening up research in times of crisis, subscription publishers have implicitly admitted that their paywalls and embargoes were unjustified and inefficient to start with. They have proved that keeping knowledge behind barriers harms the advancement of science and serves little purpose other than generating profits which the research community hardly benefits from. The very fact that this request even had to be made is striking: most of the research results reported in these papers had already been paid for by public funds and should therefore have been openly available to everyone in the first place.

In addition, some publishers only agreed to making this research available on a temporary basis, narrowly focusing on access to Covid-19 related papers. This is hard to justify, as the fight against the disease requires perspectives from multiple scientific disciplines. Publishers temporarily releasing articles from paywalls does not represent Open Access.  Full, immediate, and permanent Open Access should not only be required for research papers related to Covid-19, but research on other deadly diseases should also be accessible to researchers, medical professionals, patients and patient organizations, and citizens. So should research on climate change, education, inequality, indeed all research. It is no longer acceptable that 75% of the research literature is still behind a paywall. We don’t know which research papers that today remain largely inaccessible could inspire solutions and bright ideas for tomorrow’s challenges.

Accelerating the transition to Open Access

cOAlition S funders believe the rapid changes currently faced by a globalized society require equally nimble solutions. The Covid-19 crisis illustrates that full and immediate Open Access to research results can provide fast answers to protect lives and curb disasters. It is time to make full use of that potential for other global crises that are threatening us.

To achieve this goal, cOAlition S are working on solutions to make full and immediate Open Access a reality. Plan S offers several  routes that allow authors to share their research and fulfill Open Access conditions without giving up their freedom to  publish in the journals of their choice. cOAlition S funders require their grant holders to retain copyright of their research results and publish them with a CC-BY license that allows the work to be used and re-used freely.  Through our Price Transparency Framework we will require publishers to provide more information on publishing costs in order to make academic publishing more transparent, fair and sustainable. The Transformative Journal framework helps  publishers to rapidly transition their subscription journals to Open Access. We are continuously exploring new ways to make open access publishing affordable and fair to scientists all over the world, and making sure that there is no way back from the transition to Open Access.

If not now, when?

Let’s not waste this crisis, but build on the current momentum.  We appeal to all research financing and performing organizations to join cOAlition S and support our commitment to make all research results immediately and permanently available, without embargo, and irrespective of the publication venue. The time for full and immediate Open Access was yesterday, but the chance to learn from our mistakes and to act is now.

Johan Rooryck

cOAlition S Open Access Champion

Johan Rooryck

Johan Rooryck is Executive Director of cOAlition S and a linguistics professor at Leiden University. He is the editor-in-chief of the Fair Open Access journal Glossa: a journal of general linguistics since 2016. From 1999 to 2015, he was the executive editor of Lingua (Elsevier), when its Editorial Team and Board, as well as its reader and author community, decided to leave Lingua to found Glossa. He also is a founding member and president of the Fair Open Access Alliance (FOAA) and Linguistics in Open Access (LingOA). He is a Member of the Academia Europaea.