Liz Allen: How Ebola and Zika might help to open up science

The Ebola and Zika epidemics could be the catalyst to open up and speed up the publishing of science. During the Ebola outbreak, there were examples of researchers being unwilling to share results and data at the required speed, which might have compromised the public health response. After the emergency, leading funders called for incentives to share data and publish findings. The same funders recently called—importantly this time with publishers—for endorsement of a World Health Organization (WHO) statement on data sharing and discussed how it should happen.

The WHO statement emphasises the need for a shift in the approach to information sharing in emergencies, “from one limited by embargoes set for publication timelines, to open sharing using modern fit-for-purpose pre-publication platforms. Researchers, journals, and funders will need to engage fully for this paradigm shift to occur.” But why should this be the case only in emergencies? If work has been funded by public agencies, shouldn’t there be the same imperative to share data and findings whatever the subject? Why should patients, clinicians, policymakers, and other researchers have to wait until findings have been crafted into a form more likely to secure acceptance by a journal? It might also be confusing to create a two track system, where just some research and data are fast tracked. A two track system will present researchers, funders, and publishers with confusion around how to define an emergency and with additional administrative and workflow burdens (think open access hybrid models).

The calls for changing how we respond to public health emergencies come at a time when the way science and research is carried out and shared is evolving rapidly and there is a move towards open science. Open science aims to accelerate scientific progress and to turn what is discovered into benefits for all. Precise definitions of open science vary but, facilitated by technology, certain principles—open data, open access, open peer review, open methodologies—remain core. It’s essential to open science that scientific findings are available for scrutiny, rapidly accessible, and easily discoverable for others to use and build upon—precisely what is being called for during public health emergencies. Existing journal publishing models are increasingly at odds with this.

Open science publishing and pre-print platforms are in use; early adopters of them include those producing “big” data rapidly, such as bioinformaticians and the genomics community. Others are following suit: for example, researchers in specialities such as neuroimaging where new techniques are delivering massive data streams (see the recent commitment from the Montreal Neurological Institute), and there are benefits to opening these data up for scrutiny from all interested in making a difference.

Early adopters should receive career reassurance from the major funding agencies and research institutions that signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, which emphasised a commitment to moving away from journal impact factors as a measure of research quality. The purpose of this blog was not, however, to unpick the (predominantly cultural) problems with the way we reward and incentivise science—of which securing a publication in a high prestige journal plays an important part.

It has taken several recent public health emergencies to throw into stark relief the failings of the current routes that scientists take to publish their work. We should use the opportunity of a cross stakeholder call on data sharing to collaboratively rethink how new findings are shared generally, rather than continue to paper over the cracks in an outdated and outmoded publishing system.

There may be many paths to publishing research in an open science future, but all should enable researchers (and funders) to make research findings and data, whatever they say, available for scrutiny at speed and not just in emergency situations.

Liz Allen is director of strategic initiatives at F1000 and a visiting senior research fellow at the Policy Institute, Kings’ College London. Before joining F1000 in 2015, Liz was head of evaluation at the Wellcome Trust.

Competing interests: LA is employed by F1000, a publisher of services for scientists and researchers, which includes an open access, open peer review scientific publishing platform.