This column appeared in French in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir (October 31, 2020) and in the French online newspaper Mediapart (November 3, 2020), both in Open Access.
Unprecedented crisis, unprecedented scientific effort
The emotion aroused by COVID-19 was the driving force behind the sharing of research results with unprecedented speed and openness. Allowing rapid and unimpeded access to knowledge became obvious very quickly to everyone, doctors, epidemiologists, virologists, infectious diseases specialists, but also psychologists, sociologists, economists, statisticians, modellers and also the public, through the media. But will this new, radically open paradigm of research communication lead to a permanent change in the way researchers communicate the results of their work?
A rusty background
The current context of the pandemic and the socio-economic upheavals entailed by the effort to counter it, but also other major concerns of humankind such as climate change, energy transition and world hunger, require reliable research results, shared equitably and without delay at the global level.
The scientific communication system has hardly been modernised in recent decades and has even become archaic in view of the modern developments in communication. Delays between submission and publication of articles and monographs are excessively long : by the time they appear, some research is already out of date. In addition, publication costs are far too high in relation to the real cost of electronic dissemination.
The pitfall also lies in the way researchers are evaluated. Based on the number of their publications and the prestige of the journals that publish them, assessment urges scientists to focus on writing articles as if it were a goal in itself. This type of evaluation does not do justice to the merits of the researcher and its effects on science are perverse: a plethora of publications and a decline in their quality (1). In the humanities and social sciences, it depreciates the use of vernacular languages, which is important in research related to a more local context.
Today, digital technologies make it possible to accompany an online publication with all the data used, the metadata as well as the experimental or observational protocols, or even to open the text to readers’ comments. However, on a daily basis, peer review remains stuck on a process established after the Second World War, itself inspired by an editorial model that dates back to the first scholarly journals of the 17th century. The traditional Peer Review is singularly lacking in clarity and transparency, and quality control is neglected. A bias has developed in favour of research themes that reflect the concerns of wealthy countries. Peer review is a slow and time-consuming process. It does not always identify genius – considered eccentric by the experts consulted – and is not adapted to the publication of negative results, necessary for the advancement of knowledge. However, it remains essential for the validation of knowledge by specialists in the field and allows progress towards consensus among scientists. Open review (2), as a component of Open Science, offers a valuable opportunity to eliminate most of the shortcomings of peer review and to move towards greater accountability of expertise.
If these problems have persisted for many years, it is also because the bulk of research communication was gradually handed over in the second half of the 20th century to an oligopoly of commercial for-profit entities (3), under the influence of men such as media mogul Robert Maxwell. Listed on the stock exchange, some of these major publishers reap profit margins of 30 to 40%, reselling to universities the articles that researchers, financed by taxpayers, have written and evaluated on a voluntary basis !
It must therefore be acknowledged: our scientific communication processes are neither efficient nor adapted to the challenges of our time.
A perfect opportunity to open
During the COVID-19 pandemic, governments and funders around the world demanded rapid and open sharing of results and data relevant to the disease. Virtually all publishers complied with this moratorium. It has highlighted the effectiveness of barrier-free sharing of scientific information, just as longstanding advocates of Open Access have long claimed. The time between the submission of articles and their publication has been considerably reduced. In addition, the « pre-publication » pioneered for almost 30 years by ArXiv (releasing the manuscript online before it is published as an article in a specialised journal) and the sharing of raw data have intensified.
Of course, concerns were expressed about the quality control of the results shared in this way under the pretext of urgency. A legitimate scientific controversy over the drugs to be used has even degenerated into a sterile polemic on social networks and in the press. However, it was indeed the immediate exposure, in free access, by the publishers of the journals involved, that enabled the scientific community to detect fraud and led their authors to retract the articles. The wanderings observed in the communication on COVID-19 were an opportunity to show that free and open publication does not contradict either scientific quality assurance or research ethics.
A new dawn for public research ?
The big question now is whether this new paradigm for communicating research, making it radically open, which has proved successful in the crisis, will lead to long lasting change. Indeed, some publishers who had opened up access to publications on the new coronavirus have already started to put their content behind toll gates or have indicated that they will do so in the near future. Play time is over.
In the traditional scientific publishing system, it is the publishers who appear as the custodians of the orthodoxy of science and of the quality appraisal of publications. In 2020, on the other hand, it is the principles of Open Science (4) that have provided everyone with the clear, verified and/or verifiable information they need. Thanks to the extremely rapid circulation of information from experimental and clinical research, Open Access has enabled the medical management of the pandemic to progress and the average severity of infections to be significantly reduced within six months.
It is therefore urgent, for the general interest, to learn the lessons of this dramatic episode and to take steps to ensure a completely free flow of information from public research, whatever its nature. We must begin now to reallocate our resources into open community infrastructures and services that are in line with current research and societal concerns (5). Let’s not go back to the way things were after the pandemic disappears eventually. The challenges facing our society will never again tolerate locked-up knowledge.
Bernard RENTIER, virologist, Rector Emeritus of the University of Liege, member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium
Marc VANHOLSBEECK, PhD in communication sciences and lecturer at the Université Libre de Bruxelles
for Carta Academica (https://www.cartaacademica.org/)
(1) Gingras, Y., & Khelfaoui, M. (2020). Why the h-index is a bogus measure of academic impact. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/why-the-h-index-is-a-bogus-measure-of-academic-impact-141684
(2) Pontille, D., & Torny, D. (2020). Peer Review: Readers in the Making. Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access, 113.
(3) Larivière, V., Haustein, S., & Mongeon, P. (2015). The oligopoly of academic publishers in the digital era. PloS one, 10(6), e0127502.
(4) Rentier, B. Open Science, the challenge of transparency (2018) – Éditions de l’Académie Royale de Belgique, Coll. L’Académie en Poche nº114, 152p. E-book in Open Access.
(5) Tennant, J., Crane, H., Crick, T., Davila, J., Enkhbayar, A., Havemann, J., Kramer, B., Martin, R., Masuzzo, P., Nobes, A., Rice, C., Rivera-López, B., Ross-Hellauer, T., Sattler, S., Thacker, P., & Vanholsbeeck, M. (2019, juin 01). Ten Hot Topics around Scholarly Publishing. Publications, 7(2), 34. doi:10.3390/publications7020034.