Commitments to early sharing of research and data during the pandemic fall short: collaboration is the missing ingredient

Scholarly communication is how research is shared and published. Getting scientific information into the public domain in a timely and open way ensures we have the evidence to inform clinical decision-making, drug developments, policy-making, and a host of other activities. 

Getting the right incentives and policies for open or free access publishing aligned across the many players of the scholarly communication ecosystem is difficult. To avoid too much of the burden or cost falling on one player in particular – publishers, service providers, funders or researchers – conversations and collaborations should be brokered across the system. 

The pandemic has highlighted the pressures on the scientific publication system and early on commitments were made to uphold and increase open access activities. Together with partners, we recognised a need to look more closely at the impact of COVID-19 on academic publishing, to see what’s working well, and where there’s room for improvement.  

Our report, Scholarly Communication in Times of Crisis: The response of the scholarly communication system to the COVID-19 pandemicillustrates what we think is essential in scholarly communication – speed and quality – but achieving it is a shared responsibility.  

What did we do?

The project team – including researchers, publishers, and other scholarly communication experts – examined how well commitments to the Wellcome-coordinated COVID-19 statement and the COVID-19 Rapid Review Initiative were kept.

We carried out extensive scientometric analysis, surveyed authors of COVID-19 preprints and looked at case studies. 

We used data from Dimensions, Crossref, Unpaywall, PubMed, and Altmetric, as well as data made available by publishers (eLife, Hindawi, PLOS, Royal Society, and Springer Nature).

The key areas explored in the report are:

  • open or free access publishing
  • preprinting
  • data sharing
  • acceleration of peer review
  • new forms of peer review (such as open online peer review)

What has the pandemic done for scholarly communication?

Although the sharing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome within days of the virus being identified is upheld as the poster child for open science, the overall speed, quality and volume of COVID-19 research and data being shared openly has been a mix of success and shortcomings. 

We found:

  • Most COVID-19 research articles have been made open or free access.
  • Levels of preprinting and data sharing are (much) lower than many had hoped.
  • There has been a lot of pressure on the journal peer review system – rejection rates for COVID-19 research were high because of issues with quality – yet many journals managed to speed up peer review of COVID-19 research.
  • Publishers, platforms and other service providers are innovating new forms of peer review, but only at a small scale.
  • Different stakeholders jointly made a strong commitment to open sharing of COVID-19 research results, but there seems to have been less ongoing collaborative working in ensuring the commitment was implemented. 

The report concludes that there is no magic bullet to improving scholarly communication. It is a joint responsibility that requires stakeholders working together more intensively to realise change in the system.

The benefits of RoRI being involved

As a partner in the COVID-19 Rapid Review initiative, RoRI worked alongside several scholarly publishers, and other service providers, to carry out analysis and lead on the authoring of the report. We fed in an understanding of how funders and other players fit into scholarly communication to help ensure conclusions fit and recommendations work for the wider system.

Because of the complex nature of scholarly communication, different players across the system can find themselves with conflicting perspectives and priorities as we move towards more open practices.

The report’s exploration of preprints best illustrates how delicate this balance can be. Despite the commitment made to post COVID-19 research on a preprint server before it appears in a journal, or in some other peer-reviewed outlet, a corresponding preprint can be found for only 5% of all peer-reviewed COVID-19 outputs .

When exploring why this might be the case, we found that none of the stakeholder groups involved felt they could take full responsibility for implementing the commitment to preprinting (for example, by mandating it). Fulfilling this commitment requires joined up implementation by all players and this didn’t happen.

What’s next? 

RoRI will continue to make connections and facilitate conversations between publishers, funders and others who are interested in evidence-informed ways of improving peer review, preprinting and open access publishing. 

We want to see more join in on these conversations. We’ll be engaging RoRI partners on how they might use the conclusions and recommendations – advocating collaboration as the essential ingredient for achieving goals around open or free access publishing. Ultimately, improving how research is evaluated and communicated to work better for everybody.