Scholarly communication in times of crisis: The response of the scholarly communication system to the COVID-19 pandemic
Waltman, Ludo; Pinfield, Stephen; Rzayeva, Narmin; Oliveira Henriques, Susana; Fang, Zhichao; Brumberg, Johanna; et al.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the greatest global public-health crisis in a century. Scientific research and its effective communication have been at the centre of the worldwide response to the emergency. This report analyses how the scholarly communication system — involving the production, evaluation, and dissemination of research outputs — has responded to this crisis, focusing on the period until mid-2021. It evaluates ways in which the scholarly communication system, including its quality control mechanisms, has operated during the pandemic. It also examines how the global crisis has enabled innovations in scholarly communication, and the effects they have had on the system, or may have in future.
Early in the pandemic, a statement on ‘Sharing research data and findings relevant to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak’ was issued by Wellcome and signed by 160 organisations worldwide, including research funders, publishers, infrastructure providers, and research institutions. The statement called on actors in the research system to implement a set of agreed principles. In addition, a group of publishers and related organisations came together and launched the COVID-19 Rapid Review Initiative in April 2020, to maximise the efficiency and speed of peer review of COVID-19 research.
Together the commitments made as part of these initiatives involve major change in scholarly communication, including making COVID-19
research outputs openly or freely accessible, preprinting of COVID-19 research, sharing data from COVID-19 research, speeding up publication times of COVID-19 articles, and facilitating peer review of COVID19 preprints.
This report examines the extent to which these key commitments made at the beginning of the pandemic have been realised. The report has been written by a team comprising researchers, publishers, and other scholarly communication experts, all associated with the COVID-19 Rapid Review Initiative. It presents the results of research undertaken by the team and reviews research conducted by others. The report helps to identify opportunities for scholarly communication stakeholders to effect change that will extend beyond the pandemic and have long-lasting benefits.
The main findings show that the scholarly communication system has been successful in making research openly or freely accessible, with 90% of peer-reviewed COVID-19 outputs accessible in these ways.
Especially in medical fields, the pandemic has led to an increased interest in posting articles on preprint servers before submitting them to a peer-reviewed journal. However, while COVID-19 research has been preprinted relatively often, the proportion of peer-reviewed
COVID-19 outputs with a preprint is still low. This study identifies a preprint for just 5% of all peer-reviewed COVID-19 outputs.
Early and ongoing data sharing of the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequences has clearly been successful in combating the pandemic, but overall,
sharing of COVID-19 research data has remained relatively low.
Many journals managed to speed up publication times. Analysis of the response of the journal peer review system to the pandemic yields a generally positive picture. On average, the time from submission to publication has been substantially shorter for COVID-19 articles than for similar non-COVID-19 articles.
With the impetus of the pandemic, significant innovation has taken place in the area of peer reviewing preprints, but initiatives remain small-scale and experimental.
The report offers a series of recommendations. It concludes that no one player has the solution to the major challenges faced by the
scholarly communication system. Improving scholarly communication is a joint responsibility that requires collaboration and coordinated action across stakeholders in the research system.
The pandemic has illustrated the importance of openness — open access, open data, and open science more widely. The rapid and open sharing of the SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequencing data, along with opening up of the majority of the COVID-19 literature, are open science success stories of the pandemic. The experience of COVID-19 has further strengthened the case for more widespread adoption of open practices beyond the immediate crisis. Efforts to promote open science, particularly open access of published outputs and open
sharing of data, need to be further intensified.
There is a need for more concerted action in the area of preprinting if larger-scale adoption is to be achieved. All stakeholders in the scholarly communication system can play a role in this, including mandating preprints, at least in the case of emergencies, and possibly more generally.
The prevalence of data sharing can be increased through joint efforts of key players. Across stakeholders, common data policy templates should be developed to require data sets and software to be posted to a trusted repository, and to require formal citations to data sets and software.
Additional investment in preprint peer review platforms are needed to scale up operations and to develop best practices for preprint peer review. Approaches to combining or integrating preprint peer review and journal peer review also need to be considered.
Efforts should be intensified to improve the availability and quality of data and metadata on scholarly publishing, allowing for robust evidence-informed approaches to innovation in scholarly communication.
It is hoped that this report will contribute to the ongoing discussion and debate about the future of scholarly communication, as we emerge
from the pandemic.
Copyright © 2021 the authors