Coronavirus article free access ‘doesn’t go far enough’

With insights from a variety of fields potentially useful in the fight against coronavirus, some French academics are arguing for more research and data to be made publicly available

April 14, 2020

Academics leading France’s push towards open access have said that publishers have not gone far enough in making coronavirus-related scientific articles free to read, as insights from all disciplines are potentially useful in the fight against the virus.

The French Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation has already mandated that all relevant research and data be made publicly available, and said that it could take legal measures to ensure open access during the pandemic.

But what counts as a relevant publication is now being examined by the ministry, explained Serge Bauin, one of the leaders of the country’s open access push, as it seeks to understand how widely this order should apply.

Publishers have responded to the pandemic by opening up normally paywalled articles about the virus and the disease that it causes. Elsevier, the world’s biggest publisher, started in January to make articles on coronavirus free to read, and currently more than 20,000 are online.

This opening up was done “from a relatively early stage”, said Jonathan Grigg, deputy dean for research integrity at Queen Mary University of London’s School of Medicine and Dentistry. It was an “example of how it should be done”, he said.

Still, Dr Bauin argued that it was impossible to know in advance which articles would be useful in tackling the virus. “Any part of research can have something to say at some point,” he said, and pointed to high energy physics experts and astronomers who were using models from their fields to try to predict its spread.

Of course you can open the publications that have coronavirus in their abstract,” said Martina Knoop, another researcher helping to implement the ministry’s open access plan, set out in 2018. “The issue is: to what topics do you extend [this policy]?”

There are a lot of different disciplines that can contribute,” she said, not just those from narrowly relevant fields such as virology and epidemiology. “There are things coming from maths, engineering [and more].”

Elsevier defines relevant articles as those that include terms such as “Covid-19” or “coronavirus”, plus papers mentioning the previous Sars and Mers outbreaks.

I would have personally thought that this means for the foreseeable future these will remain free to view,” said Professor Grigg. “Journals have an obligation to carry this on...until we’re vaccinated.”

The French ministry’s edict covers not just open access for papers but stresses that scientists need to adhere to the principles of open science too – sharing data and making them easy to reuse and access.

The issue of sound experimental data has become particularly acute in France after Didier Raoult, a prominent microbiologist, co-authored a small study that suggested hydroxychloroquine could be effective against Covid-19, apparently triggering US president Donald Trump’s interest in the unproven drug.

Although the study went through peer review, numerous concerns have been raised since, including over confusing data, and on 3 April the International Society of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy – which owns the journal in which it was published – issued a statement saying that Professor Raoult’s article “does not meet the society’s expected standard”.

The pandemic is “really a crystalisation point where you can see how important open science is”, said Dr Knoop.

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Reader's comments (1)

Hear, hear! I feel physically sick when I see the PR-driven efforts of massively profitable traditional publishers like Elsevier magnanimously allowing us the privilege of reading vital medical literature because suddenly there is a crisis. All research, but especially medical research, should be Open Access by default.