The Coronavirus-Related Growth in Topical Preprint and Article Publication Output Puts Open Access into the Public Spotlight

In response to the Covid-19 crisis, scientific societies and publishers have been abandoning paywalls, in order to provide Open Access to their journals and monographs.

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As the Biochemical Society, the United Kingdom, lifted access restrictions from its publications in May, 2020, it has been emulating the approach that Springer Nature took in April, when it announced its intentions to increase compliance with the Plan S initiatives that champions the adoption of Open Access. Yet despite calls from the editorial boards of leading scholarly journals, such as that of Elsevier’s Neuron, to switch to Open Access, concerns about its sustainability remain.

Elsevier’s yearly increase of 40% for articles published in Gold Open Access in 2019 also serves as the background for the likely accelerating and wide-reaching transition to Open Access in 2020. However, for this momentum to spill beyond coronavirus-related papers, a wider shift toward Open Access in the academic publishing industry is likely to be needed, which depends on whether preconditions for that exist.

This also applies to preprint servers, e.g., bioRxiv, that have been providing rapid review and public access to Covid-19-related papers, while ensuring that these will stay in Open Access after journals, such as The New England Journal of Medicine, put their content behind paywalls, when the pandemic ends. Though this crisis highlights the public value of Open Access, a wholesale shift to this model can be expected to require a corresponding change in the structure of the incentives in the academic publishing system, as Cameron Neylon from Curtin University in Perth, Australia, argues.

On the one hand, preprint platforms, such as medRxiv have experienced a surge in the numbers of Covid-oriented submissions in recent months, also from researchers in China, which increasingly favors publishing in local journals over international ones in its regulatory priorities. On the other hand, the rapidity of their publication procedures does not match the peer review processes that ensure that academic quality standards are uniformly met, likely even after the latter have been temporarily sped up in response to the urgency of the coronavirus crisis.

While publication policies of scholarly journals and preprint servers may be converging at present and more lastingly in the future, e.g., via researcher-led preprint review initiatives involving PLOS, eLife, medRxiv and bioRxiv, a larger-scale transition to Open Access is not necessarily likely in the near term, since publisher revenues and university budgets have, in many cases, suffered from the economic downturn taking place around the world in 2020.

This issue is compounded by the accumulating evidence that papers expeditiously published in preprint servers and academic journals have been at times containing empirical mistakes and not always following the principles of scientific research methodologies, while leading to retractions of Covid-related papers, e.g., in The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine.

In other words, the rapid review procedures for cutting-edge research results may fail to ensure their reliability and validity, which can have knock-on effects on the policies and decisions of public and private organizations that seek to bring these publications to bear on their operations, especially in the healthcare sector.

Thus, whereas the Open Access sector brings a significant boost to the public discussions around recent research results, it is likely to continue to coexist with the subscription-based models of academic publishing associated with stringent peer review procedures.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: COVID-19, Thailand, March 30, 2020 | © Courtesy of Prachatai/Flickr.

Pablo Markin

Community Manager, Open Research Community

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