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The pandemic showed scholarly publishing a better path forward

Author: Alison Mudditt, CEO, PLOS

Note: This blog is derived from remarks that I gave earlier this year at the UN Open Science Conference and has been lightly edited for length and format. This is the first of four blog posts on how we can collectively change scholarly publishing for the benefit of all of us.

For the past three years, scientists have been going to school in a giant lab whether they realized it or not. The pandemic placed research in the spotlight like never before. We saw global scientific collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Across countries and disciplines, thousands of experts focused urgently on a single problem, that of COVID-19.

This forced some key breakthroughs for Open Science as everyone rose to the challenge:

  • Information previously locked behind paywalls, even though much of it was publicly funded, was opened to scientists globally.
  • Many of the usual imperatives of the dysfunctional academic credit system were set aside as results and data were shared immediately. 
  • Preprints and other online sharing become the norm when the delay of even a few weeks to publication could mean lives lost.
  • Hundreds of clinical trials were launched, bringing together labs and hospitals around the globe.
  • The usual secrecy and hoarding of data that might lead to grants and promotions was eroded by the urgency of the moment.

All of this happened because it was a matter of survival experienced urgently and simultaneously by societies around the world. But the fundamental flaws of traditional research practices and sharing were also laid bare by the pandemic. And they perfectly illustrate the imperatives of Open Science at global scale.

The lessons learned by all of us should light a better path forward. What became possible during the pandemic should become the norm, not the exception.

Publishers agreed that access to COVID-related research was critical to accelerate our response to the pandemic. Which raises both a practical and moral question as to why the same approach isn’t required to solve problems like the climate crisis or finding a cure for cancer.

Over the past decade, we’ve made tremendous progress with Open Access to scholarly knowledge. The vision that the entire body of published scholarship should be made available to everyone free of charge is now within sight.

But open science is about more than being able to read an article. It’s about providing the right context to understand it, the resources to replicate it, the tools to collaborate and make science better. And it is also about equitable participation in knowledge creation and sharing.

Take a problem such as the hunt for a universal coronavirus vaccine. Imagine if we all had access to all elements of past and current research. Imagine if we had enough detail about experiments to replicate them. Imagine if we had access to all the underlying data to be able to reuse it. And imagine if we knew as much about the experiments that failed as the ones that worked. Is there anyone who really thinks that we wouldn’t have found a vaccine both more quickly and efficiently?

What’s broken in scientific publishing and what it will take to institute radical change

For scholarly publishing to arrive at this future state requires some radical change. Without change, we risk a range of challenges, including one we are all experiencing today – the continuing erosion of trust in science and expertise.

At the societal level, trust and confidence in science are crucial if we are to collectively tackle our global challenges. How, for example, can we expect people to ‘get the jab’ if they don’t trust the science or scientists who developed it?

Here in the US, trust in science took a real hit during the pandemic. But what is really striking is how this trend has been dangerously fueled globally by the rise in populist movements. A shift that’s making it even harder to find agreement about causes and solutions to key threats such as the climate crisis.

Lack of public understanding – particularly among those with less knowledge about science – was a significant underlying cause. But the solution isn’t to put science back into its black box.

The ways we share and communicate the results of research can make an impact. Accessible publication of the results, data and ideas arising from research is a fundamental part of how science functions and advances. Incentivizing this transparency can help build trust among stakeholders and enable more robust evaluation. However, a world in which every stage of the research process is shared by default is very different from the way the system works today.

What’s wrong with the current system?

Plenty of people – primarily those who’ve benefited from the current system – think it’s fine. And those who want to change it, such as early career researchers, lack the power and influence to do so.

When it comes to scientific publishing, concerns about the ways in which commercial interests are distorting scientific values have been growing for decades.

There are most certainly commercial drivers at work. For many publishers, radical change is a threat to a very profitable business model that they want to protect.

Publishers operate in a conservative system in which change is slow and blocked, in large part by a fundamentally broken system of researcher incentives and rewards.

Most established researchers have been practicing closed science for years, even decades.  Changing these old habits requires some upfront time and effort. Technology is helping speed this process of adopting open habits, but behavioral change is hard.

Scientists, like other humans, tend to repeat behaviors that are rewarded. Given the profusion of demands for assessment for grants and promotion, it’s too easy to fall back on narrow and biased proxy metrics such as the Journal Impact Factor. It’s an extraordinarily poorly used metric, frequently used as a mark of prestige which overshadows indicators of good scientific practices.

And journal editors tend to favor publishing papers that tell a tidy story with perfectly clear results. This has led researchers to craft their papers to be free from blemish, omitting “failed” studies that don’t clearly support their theories.

There’s a particular set of challenges for researchers in the Global South who are pressured into norms set by the Global North. To illustrate, here’s a short story about an African scientist from the Jakarta Post.

She’s a leader in the field of crop science whose recent research examined the role indigenous vegetables might have in addressing poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity in Africa.  But when she submitted papers to well-regarded international scientific journals describing these findings, they were rejected. Not because the research was not good, but because the crops she was writing about were regarded as weeds by reviewers and editors in the Global North. 

It’s just one example of how African research is excluded from established science publishing. People in developed economies determine what good science is without knowledge of the varying circumstances. 

How We’ll Make Change

The challenges associated with changing these systems can feel overwhelming.

They start with a broken incentive system where we’re rewarding novelty and prestige. As a result, many research outputs aren’t available – often because there’s no incentive to share them. And this, in turn, fuels challenges with reproduction.

Finally, zooming up to the 30,000-foot level, it’s hard to believe that well into the digital age, publication remains slow and final when the research process itself is dynamic and subject to revision.

Collectively, these problems lead to an entrenched stasis which blocks change.

What we’re talking about here is a transformation of research culture and the incentives that drive researcher behavior. One that requires action from institutions, funders and policymakers along with publishers.

Publishers like to think of themselves as custodians of the research information supply chain. We pride ourselves on the critical role we play in weeding out poor quality and fraud, on curating what’s most relevant and important to different readers and users.

Without underestimating the profound systemic issues, there are meaningful ways in which we can start to make progress and build a publishing system that better matches the research process it serves.

You will soon hear more on that next week when I provide specifics about how Open Science publishing can lead to transformational change.

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