Capitalising on COVID: Making research easier to access

Academic research has always been foundational when it comes to establishing facts. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, many of us became much more conscious of the information we consume. Faced with an unforeseen and serious threat to public health, we turned quickly to scientists, doctors and other experts for guidance.

Throughout the pandemic, national chief medical officers and scientific advisers became trusted household names as they addressed the public regularly. Those who previously might never have encountered an epidemiologist now heard from them regularly on television or radio, in print and on social media.

These trends are investigated in Oxford University Press’s (OUP) recent report The Matter of Fact, which looks at attitudes to expertise, fact-finding and the truth, and reveals how they have been impacted by the pandemic.

For the study, 5,000 people from the United Kingdom, the United States, Mexico, India and South Africa were asked about how they found and shared factual information and how they judged the credibility of different sources.

This research showed that we still trust information from academic sources and experts more than information obtained from other venues. When asked where they believe truth originates, a third of people around the world (32%) said academic research – more than any other source.

Nearly half of us (48%) feel more confident that a piece of information is true if it is backed up by relevant experts, and around the same number (47%) say the quantity and type of evidence backing up an idea or statement affects their confidence in its accuracy.

However, there have been rapid changes in how we find and share information following the social media revolution, with the pandemic raising concerns about how easily false or unreliable information can spread online.

The results also showed a contradiction in our behaviour. Despite so many of us saying that we have the most trust in academic sources, people were most likely to share information sourced via Google and social networks.

Forty-eight percent of respondents said they had shared information sourced via Google as fact, and social media came a close second, with 44% saying they had shared information from a social media platform. By comparison, only 18% said they had shared information from an academic journal. A quarter of respondents (25%) said that they had shared information from Wikipedia as fact, while even more (31%) had shared information received via WhatsApp.

However, according to the study, more than nine in 10 people (92%) feel confident that information shared from academic journals is accurate, compared to just 75% when the source is social media. It’s clear that while the internet has had an enormous impact on how we consume information and learn new facts, academia – and expertise – still have the public’s trust.

Making research accessible

The importance of demonstrating the scientific consensus on major topics has been shown with the recent announcement of a pilot project for an Institute for Ascertaining Scientific Consensus led by academics from Durham University. The project aims to help the public gauge the level of agreement among experts on contested topics by polling up to 100,000 scientists on different issues.

The demand for scientific knowledge makes it vital that high-quality, peer-reviewed academic research is made as easily accessible as possible to the general public.

Academic publishers around the world must therefore look at how they can champion open research – and make it more accessible. At OUP more than a third (36%) of our content is available via open access, without barriers to access or re-use.

Major journals published by OUP, including GigaScience, Brain Communications and Oxford Open Immunology, have transparent peer review processes in place, so readers can study and interrogate the peer review reports for articles. More than 350 of our journals have data availability policies, with the aim of allowing readers to find and analyse the data behind the research.

Providing this kind of access introduces transparency and scrutiny to research processes which were previously only accessible to a select few. It also has the advantages of limiting duplication and improving reproducibility.

Some academic articles had a major impact during the pandemic. In July 2020, in the first few months of the crisis, Clinical Infectious Diseases, which OUP publishes on behalf of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, published a highly influential open letter from multiple clinicians emphasising the risk of airborne transmission of the virus, which has been viewed almost 300,000 times on our website alone and was picked up by more than 700 news outlets worldwide.

Digital technology has the power to increase the accessibility of reliable academic material such as this, making processes more transparent and spreading that material widely.

As the world’s largest university press, OUP is innovating around how we share research content. One innovation is a digitisation project, bringing 42,000 research books and 500,000 journal chapters onto one online platform, Oxford Academic. Other innovations to make research more accessible and shareable include lay summaries and explainer videos from authors.

These projects enable experts to share their wide-ranging knowledge and perspectives, bringing about open and honest discussion while giving people the resources to better interrogate and understand the world around them.

Since the pandemic started, nearly three quarters of us (74%) say that we have become more cautious about the truthfulness of information. Academic research platforms can make innovative research accessible for all, encouraging renewed faith in expertise and providing people with the facts they need, when they need them.

With the demand for reliable information greater than ever in the wake of the pandemic, we must now empower experts to share their wide-ranging knowledge and perspectives with the world.

Rhodri Jackson is publishing director, open access, at Oxford University Press (OUP). Rhodri has worked in open access for 16 years and leads OUP’s open access strategy and publishing. Rhodri was a two-time board member of the Open Access Scholarly Publishing Association, and has also served on the STM Association Board, and on the Research4Life Open Access Task Force. OUP’s report, The Matter of Fact, can be read online here.