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Contemporary Concepts In Publishing

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak: A Case Study for Open Science


Dr. Avriel Licciardi, Associate Editor

March 2020

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that initiated in Wuhan, China in late December 2019 has evolved into a public health emergency of international concern. As of mid-March 2020, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide passed 125,000, resulting in more than 4,600 deaths, with infections documented in more than 100 countries.

As health authorities worldwide continue to combat the COVID-19 epidemic, the scientific research community has responded with a degree of open communication that is unprecedented, with research laboratories working collaboratively to answer critical questions surrounding the virus. Further, scientists and medical professionals have been relying on freely available scientific papers, resources, and datasets to inform containment and treatment strategies, public health initiatives, and drug development. As such, the COVID-19 outbreak has become an important test case for the benefits and concerns of open science, transforming how scientists communicate their findings within the research community and to the public.

Researchers have openly shared coronavirus-related data from the beginning of the epidemic. Prior to the declaration of COVID-19 as an international public health emergency, scientists worldwide commended the speed with which Chinese scientists shared the first genome of the novel coronavirus. The first reports of the disease were issued in late December 2019, and by January 8, 2020, scientists in China had sequenced the viral genome and made it public via an open access site, virological.

At least 54 English-language papers on COVID-19 were published within the first month of the outbreak; the number of coronavirus-related publications and preprints has now surpassed 1000 as of early March 2020. A torrent of data continues to be released daily by preprint servers, and scientists are sharing more information using preprints than during any previous epidemic. Publishing houses and organizations have also participated in open science practices: One day after COVID-19 was designated a public health concern, 94 academic journals, societies, institutes, and companies signed a joint statement to ensure the rapid sharing of research data and findings relevant to the virus, at least for the duration of the outbreak. Open educational resources have emerged, providing free online courses to educate the public with how to better protect themselves against COVID-19. Additionally, editorial staff are working overtime—commendably—to ensure manuscripts are reviewed, edited, and published at record speeds. For example, the New England Journal of Medicine published one COVID-19 paper within 48 hours of submission, and our own organization, LetPub, has provided over 100 free waivers for COVID-19 authors in need of editorial support.

This intense communication has catalyzed a remarkable level of collaboration among scientists that, combined with scientific advances, has enabled research to move faster than during any previous outbreak. The effect of the COVID-19 crisis on the distribution of scientific research also highlights arguments against the longstanding pay-to-read research publication model, and may be viewed by some as validating concerns that the traditional publishing model is not as effective when a critical need arises for rapid dissemination of data.

However, the vast amount of openly available data can stimulate the development of hastily written manuscripts that vary wildly in quality, including research that is fundamentally flawed, such as a preprint posted on bioRxiv in late January 2019 that was swiftly retracted within 48 hours, or a since-retracted manuscript originally published in the distinguished journal The Lancet due to inaccurate reporting.

Measures to reduce the distribution of misinformation are taking place; bioRxiv and medRxiv have placed prominent notices emphasizing the preliminary nature of the information in preprints, and that the data posted should not be treated as conclusive. Thus, while these open science developments are positive, it is essential to understand that open science does not mean science without limits, as it must be used responsibly by researchers and the public.

Since the emergence of the novel coronavirus, questions over how research is conducted and distributed have come into sharper focus, as researchers and stakeholders are weighing the benefits and risks of rapid information sharing in an open science landscape. While many have set aside their differences regarding the debate over open science in response to the coronavirus crisis, it is undeniable that the proliferation of this new virus and the ensuing scientific response illustrate the speed at which science can move forward when research communities work collaboratively and transparently.

Open science is vital to tackling the world’s largest challenges, but scientists and the public must treat open science with responsibility, especially given the possibility of data misuse or misinterpretation at a global scale.

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