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Open Science responses during the COVID-19 pandemic

N Rajendra Prasad

The COVID-19 pandemic, while affecting the lives and work of scientists all over the globe, has also enabled an outpouring of generosity and innovation when it comes to rapid and open sharing of research outputs. During the International Open Access Week 2020, we examine some of the initiatives taken by various national and international organisations to improve global access to COVID-19 research.

Open Research

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically affected science and technology across the world. Conversely, it has also created many new scientific opportunities. Global scientific communities have been cooperating to further the progress of novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV‑2) research and to identify new scientific activities to fill certain critical gaps. The need for continuous access to scientific data and learning is essential during this pandemic period. 

Creative Commons and the Open COVID Pledge

Creative Commons (CC) is an organization that provides an open license to copy, distribute, and use intellectual property rights (IPR)-protected work. Recently, the CC organization implemented a call to promote open access in science to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. It requested scientists to follow zero embargo periods for their publications and adopt a CCBY and CC0 waiver for their research data. 

CC0 means no rights reserved”, which enables scientists to place their findings for free in the public domain. This allows others to freely enhance and reuse such works for any purposes without restriction under copyright or database law. CCBY enables researchers to remix, transform, synthesize derivatives, and rebuild the material for any purpose provided that they give appropriate credit to the original license holder and indicate what changes were made to the original material.

Restrictions in the usage of patents, copyrights, and other intellectual property rights (IPR) might end up costing lives during this pandemic. The Open COVID Pledge is an effort comprising scientists, advocates, entrepreneurs, and volunteers committed to resolving IPR-related obstacles in order to further the progress of research related to therapeutics and diagnostics for COVID-19

The Open COVID Pledge calls for pharmaceutical industries, academic institutions and other organizations across the world to make their patents and Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) available free of charge for use in inventing new diagnostics, therapeutics, vaccines, equipment, and software solutions against COVID-19.

Further, the Open COVID Pledge requests individuals to raise awareness about the Pledge in their organizations and networks using the hashtag #OpenCovidPledge. Several big industries have already joined this pledge. IBM has shared their supercomputing power and AI for virus tracking and created a consortium to give researchers free access to over 400 petaflops of computing capacity. Furthermore, IBM has offered free access to its patent on touchscreens that use UV light for preventing pathogen transmission. 

RADVAC, Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories, NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech, Sandia National Laboratories, New Jersey Institute of Technology and many other laboratories and organizations have pledged their patents and copyrights under the Open COVID Pledge.

Open access for COVID-19 related publications

Several scientific publishing houses have been providing free access to scientific publications related to SARS-CoV‑2 infection. Elsevier, a major scientific publisher, made its research and data related to COVID-19 freely available from March 13, 2020, at PubMed central and WHOCOVID database. Further, Elsevier Connect created a COVID-19 Information Centre with the latest research information on SARS-CoV‑2 and made more than 19,500 articles freely available via the ScienceDirect platform. 

Moreover, Elsevier clinicians have also been curating data from Elsevier medical journals, textbooks, clinical information, as well as resources from other information providers and major health and government organizations for use by researchers, clinicians, and healthcare professionals. Similarly, other leading scientific publishers like the American Chemical Society and Springer Nature have also committed to supporting direct access to research and data available on their platform by the global scientific community. 

Springer Nature has enabled free access to over 60,000 research articles, book chapters, and assay protocols on their platform. During this period, it has published about 10,000 new research/​review articles on the COVID-19 pandemic and made all the underlying experimental data sets freely available for re-use.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has also partnered with several organizations to enable open science in the fight against COVID-19. The UNESDOC Digital Library, a part of UNESCO, recently released a set of policy guidelines for the development and promotion of open access. 

The COVID-19 Universal REsource gateway (CURE) was recently established by the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in India, and Redalyc in Mexico. These organizations verify the relevance and accuracy of openly-licensed scientific data about the virus from different sources. The Stephen B. Thacker Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Library also maintains an up-to-date COVID-19 database. This CDC library allows researchers to search for and download research articles on COVID-19 from multiple databases. 

The iSearch COVID-19 Portfolio is a comprehensive, expert-curated source for publications related to COVID-19 maintained by the NIH. WHO’s COVID-19 research article database also allows searching through multiple databases and downloading articles. The Public Health Genomics and Precision Health Knowledge Base provides up to date genomics and precision health information on COVID-19.

Preprint publications

Preprints are full research papers that are shared publicly before they are peer-reviewed and accepted by a journal. Major preprint servers like bioRxiv and medRxiv have posted thousands of studies related to SARS-CoV‑2 since the pandemic’s outbreak. Chemistry-related preprint servers like ArXiv and ChemRxiv have also shared several papers on COVID-19

Preprints are initially examined by in-house staff and volunteer academics for plagiarism, biosecurity risk and completeness. After scrutiny, these preprints are published publicly within 2 – 3 days. The medRxiv publication duration is usually five days as it maintains a more in-depth screening process given that its publications are more directly relevant to human health. 

However, there is also a global concern about non-peer-reviewed publications as they may influence public health policy decisions. For example, there have been instances of entirely computation-based analyses for COVID-19 treatments, publications with conspiracy theories, publications contradicting widely accepted public-health advice, as well as those using unprofessional language, eliciting severe concern about preprint servers.

Conclusion

There exist a multitude of scientific responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Considering the cost of lives, several companies and investigators have waived off the usual IPR protections and restrictions through the Open COVID Pledge. Moreover, many scientific publishing companies have made COVID-19 related publications freely available online during this time. Furthermore, many researchers took advantage of the expedited framework for preprint publications during this period. However, additional scrutiny and scepticism are required while considering preprint servers as a resource for clinical applications.

Further Reading

Written By

N. Rajendra Prasad is an Associate Professor at the Department of Biochemistry & Biotechnology at Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu