Open Access and COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for accelerated discovery and a more open model for sharing of research findings.

This week, Dimity Flanagan (Manager, Scholarly Communications, University of Melbourne) updates us on the Open Scholarship movement and its implications for this public health crisis.

Over the past twenty years, there has been an increasingly vocal movement advocating for academic research to be available to anyone, anywhere, free of charge. Paywalls to research simply create barriers to scientific discovery and real-world impact. A 2018 study estimated that 28% of scholarly articles are Open Access (OA), with more recent years closer to 50%. In health crises such as coronavirus (COVID-19), ensuring that the large body of research being produced becomes freely accessible is essential for generating the greatest research impact possible.

In response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, over 30 publishers have committed to making their coronavirus related publications, and supporting data, freely available.

“It is our duty as publishers to support the research communities we serve and the public at large in any way we can during this health crisis.”

Kumsal Bayazit, Chief Executive Officer at Elsevier, via this press release.

However, by showing that removing paywalls is important in accelerating progress towards a COVID-19 vaccine, scholarly publishers are admitting that the status quo is about allowing profits to impede progress.

Open Access Logo

Image: Creator Unknown, Open Access Logo and Text,, CC BY-SA 3.0

The University of Melbourne recognizes the importance of OA through our Principles for Open Access to Research Outputs at Melbourne. Through these principles, the University acknowledges its commitment to wide research dissemination in order to improve the public good. In practice, this requires researchers to make their scholarly works available in the institutional repository, Minerva Access. In 2019, the content in Minerva Access received over 1.5 million downloads, proof that openly accessible versions of research are in great demand across the globe. However, content deposited in the repository is still subject to publisher embargo periods, which generally range from 12-24 months. Unfortunately, another impediment to accelerated discovery.

“The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak exposes an inconvenient truth about science: the current scholarly communication system does not serve the needs of science and society. More specifically, the crisis makes manifest two inefficiencies in the research system: the default to closed science and the overemphasis on elite, English-only publishing, irrespective of the context and consequences of the research.” writes Larivière, Shu and R. Sugimoto in their London School of Economics blog post.

After the dust has settled, there will be a considerable volume of research, coming from all corners of the world, analysing the impacts of this pandemic to economic systems, health systems, political leadership, supply chains, information and communication technologies (ICT), social welfare, sports, entertainment and more. Much of this research will sit behind a paywall. Unless, of course, research funders, universities, researchers, learned societies and publishers come together to map out a new scholarly communication system. A system that ensures both equitable knowledge production and access.


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