The Role of Open Science in Confronting Pandemics

The world is facing an unprecedented test. But times of crisis show us how, with creativity, we can achieve results. The COVID-19 crisis is showing us it might be possible to develop immunizations or treatments in half the time. This is the right time to rethink the bureaucracy and protocols around medical research.

While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history. Never before have we had had so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency. Nearly all other research has ground to a halt.

Normal drivers like academic credit have been set aside. Online repositories make studies available months ahead of journals. Researchers have identified and shared hundreds of viral genome sequences. More than 200 clinical trials have been launched, bringing together hospitals and laboratories around the globe.

The urgent need for immediate solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic has led researchers to favor preprint publishing – full articles made publicly available before passing the gauntlet of peer review.

The main advantages of preprints are speed and open access. Whereas traditional publishing can take many months, posting a preprint is an instant way to share findings with colleagues and stake a claim on new insights. Preprints are also freely available to the public – in contrast to journal articles, which are usually hidden behind paywalls. Used responsibly, preprints have the potential to accelerate and improve research, inspiring collaborations and sharing failures or negative results that might never make it to the pages of a journal. But such an approach for publishing presents both an opportunity and a risk. Of course, the negative is that it’s not peer reviewed, so people have to remember that what they’re reading might actually be slightly – or totally – wrong.

But one amazing advantage of this age is that it stands strong online. We are all able to contribute to the challenges we are facing from our homes. Online data science communities are a source of power that shouldn’t be underestimated. For example, bioinformatics is the backbone of drug development. The data science community can contribute to the development of new vaccines and drugs, using sources like Kaggle, where over 26,000 papers about the coronavirus are available.

This online dialogue can resemble a more formal peer-review process and lead to improvements in the paper and launch collaborations.

All of this shows us that Open Science is a more solid model for the current environment where we need to react fast. Open Science aims to make scientific research – not only the final publications but also the data, samples, and software – public, transparent and accessible.

It’s a great time to think about the role of Open Science movement. Just making data available might be not enough. How many people are actually measuring impact in Europe, in North America, Worldwide? How many people are modeling this in parts of the world where policy forecasting capacity isn’t that strong?

Right now, everyone’s attention is on COVID-19, but there will be a time when that’s no longer the case. Once that happens, will science return to more formal means of communication, collaboration and publishing?