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Open Science in the age of COVID-19

28 May 2020
The movement aims to make science more efficient and credible

In the face of the most pressing public health crisis in recent memory, the importance of generating and communicating reliable knowledge has never been more important. To do this, scientists are increasingly turning to open science. Dr Jason M. Chin explains.

The open science movement – which has been percolating for years – aims to make science more efficient and credible. For instance, in medicine, costly waste is avoided when a researcher can discover that previous trials of drug have shown it was ineffective. It also allows researchers to catch each other’s mistakes, such as errors in data collection and analysis. In short, open science progresses scientific ideals like self-correction and researchers standing on each other’s shoulders. It may therefore be surprising to much of the public that openness and transparency are not the norm in many fields.

Much of the progress we have made towards understanding and reacting to COVID-19 is directly attributable to open science.
Dr Jason Chin

For example, research must be communicated to other scientists and stakeholders for it to matter. The traditional process of publishing through commercial journals can take years. COVID-19 researchers are fast-tracking this process by publishing immediately on what are known as ‘preprint servers’. One estimate has over 2,000 articles published on two leading servers. Indeed – and as in science generally – early progress was delayed when researchers in China were limited in what they could release. And real strides were made when they did upload the first SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence.

To help ensure preprints are credible, researchers are increasingly volunteering their time to peer review these works in real time. This process is made possible by a new open science platform that allows researchers to view new preprints and directly contribute their reviews.

Open science is not just enabling the dissemination of research findings, but tools needed to slow the virus’s spread. For example, one Czech Republic producer of face shields made its schematics publicly available early in the pandemic. This has allowed those with 3D printers to accelerate their production, despite the Czech producer having reached its capacity.

When the COVID-19 pandemic has receded, it is important that the gains made towards open science do not do so as well. As we have seen, scientific progress is a matter of vital international importance. However, that is not just true of medical and public health research. For instance, forensic science regularly puts people behind bars, but it is a field that almost unilaterally failed to take up open science. Moreover, major academic publishers regularly earn billions in profit by keeping scientific advances behind paywalls. When the crisis ends, open science must continue. 

Dr Jason M. Chin is a law and psychology lecturer at the University of Sydney Law School

Photo credit: Chris Liverani, Unsplash.

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