The future of publishing: scientists need a greater say

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting containment measures created an unprecedented ‘stress test’ for science. The emergence of a novel coronavirus, with life-threatening consequences for many populations globally, meant that the results of new scientific research and potential solutions for containing and treating the pandemic were urgently needed.

The scientific community responded en masse. Within 10 months of the first confirmed COVID-19 case, over 125,000 research articles were released; of these, more than 30,000 research outputs had been posted as ‘preprints’, available before peer review or formal publication in a journal.

The pandemic prompted an avalanche of new papers, with more than 530,000 released either by journals or as preprints, according to the Dimensions bibliometric database. It fed the largest one-year increase in all scholarly articles and the largest ever annual total.

As the demand for new findings about the virus accelerated, the process of carrying out scientific research was in many cases disrupted by national lockdowns and remote working measures.

Against this backdrop, there was an increased need for scientific collaboration across geographic boundaries and for an accelerated sharing of research findings among scientists and with policy-makers and other stakeholders in a remarkably wide range of disciplines, not just healthcare sectors.

The combined need for rapid international sharing of results and for many different actors to be able to access those results highlighted the limitations of traditional scholarly publishing and gave new impetus to the development and uptake of tools for open science.

Researchers – along with many research funders and scholarly publishers – responded to this need by changing their practices, hastening peer-review processes and introducing many innovations, at least in the short term. The long-term impact and sustainability of these changes, however, remain to be seen.

Moves towards greater openness

In many ways, the pandemic-accelerated shift in scholarly publishing arrived at the right time. The long-running debate about open access (OA) publishing had gained new impetus after the 2018 launch of ‘Plan S’, an initiative for OA science publishing backed by the European Commission and a consortium of national research agencies and funders from 12 European countries.

The resulting organisation, cOAlition S, became one of many advocating for transformation in scholarly publishing around the world. Just a few months before the first coronavirus cases were observed, UNESCO member states at the general conference in Paris tasked the organisation with the development of an international standard-setting instrument on open science.

The UNESCO Recommendation on Open Science, adopted in November 2021 by its 193 member states, notes that the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the urgency and need to foster equitable access to scientific information and to facilitate sharing of scientific knowledge and data.

Ensuring that these goals are met will require action from a large number of stakeholders: publishers, research funders, scientific societies and individual researchers themselves.

This is one of the key aims of the International Science Council’s ongoing project on scientific publishing. The non-profit International Science Council (ISC) was established in 2018 to foster greater openness among its members, including national and regional science bodies, as well as disciplinary unions and associations.

Fuller adoption of open science principles and practices, such as greater use of data sharing and open peer-review processes, could have forestalled some of the shortcomings of rapid review and early publication of unverified research during the COVID-19 pandemic. Support from institutions and international initiatives can help further the adoption of these principles.

Preprints, in particular, can assist in rapid dissemination of new evidence-based knowledge to the scholarly community and also improve research transparency with mechanisms for quick feedback from peers, open data and code to support verification of findings and rapid retraction of flawed studies.

Free preprint servers have the potential to increase access to scientific research, ensuring that important findings inform responses to societal challenges and reducing duplication in scientific research. Preprints combined with open peer-review practices have the potential to make the publication process more efficient, in a manner that offers more equitable open access.

In this collaborative model of scientific advancement, fuelled by open information sharing, the role of the research community as primary producers and consumers of scientific knowledge is made more important, as is the need to uphold responsible research practices for studies published prior to (or without) formal peer review. Preprint repositories have a role to play here in upholding certain requirements for deposited papers.

Giving scientists a greater say in publishing

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a living laboratory for innovations in scientific publishing, with massive uptake of preprint repositories alongside accelerated peer review and support for concurrent data publication.

At the same time, a number of flawed studies and retractions – including those in legacy journals – have fuelled concerns about research integrity and quality, especially in light of heightened global interest in COVID-19 research findings and widespread sharing of early findings on social media.

If the advances brought by preprints are to be sustained once the pandemic has subsided, scientists themselves will need to have a greater say in defining the future of scientific publishing and in governing its infrastructure and processes.

In 2005 Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostrom presented an institutional analysis design framework for analysing governance in common pool resources and evaluated knowledge as a commons, pointing out that knowledge is a non-diminishing resource whose greater access enhances its value and utility.

Finally, there is a need to educate the public, journalists and science communicators that research papers are propositions and not ultimate solutions. This demands responsible science communication that interacts directly with all stakeholders and institutional policies that train scientists and non-scientists in respectful dialogue, communication and critical evaluation.

A publication system that promotes the sharing of findings in a way that is open to scrutiny and challenge from both scientists and the wider public is essential to fulfilling science’s role as a global public good.

Lizzie Sayer is senior communications officer at the International Science Council (ISC). Jenice Goveas is a consultant on the Future of Scientific Publishing project at the ISC; and Geoffrey Boulton is Regius Professor of Geology Emeritus, University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, and chair of the ISC project on the Future of Scientific Publishing. This article is an excerpt from an essay first published in Social Research: An International Quarterly. It is part of the journal’s issue Science Under Stress.