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The Covid-19 Pandemic: A Turning Point For The Scholarly Publishing Community

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic in March 2020. As we draw near to the anniversary of the WHO officially declaring the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, we take a look at the tremendous impact the COVID-19 outbreak has had on society and academic life, learning practices, research and teaching.

The spread of the virus left major economies and businesses across the globe counting the costs. While the COVID-19 outbreak caused massive disruption to societies and economies worldwide, it triggered the fastest and the most important response to a global emergency in human history.

In December 2020, the British health product regulation authority approved the mass use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permitted the emergency use of vaccines. This was followed by Russia announcing a mass vaccination campaign across the country. While vaccine production can typically take decades, multiple vaccines are available today to fight COVID-19, representing a remarkable scientific achievement. While frontline doctors nurses and researchers played a key role, members of the scholarly community, the unsung heroes, ensured good quality research is made available.

In the wake of the pandemic’s initial widespread impact, the scholarly publishing community opened its doors to provide access to its material to all those who could get online. Publishers worldwide joined forces to offer research materials for free through online aggregators such as JSTOR, Project MUSE, and others.

Accelerating Transformation in Scholarly Communication

While the coronavirus pandemic disrupted research, it also acted as a catalyst for change. It became significant for the scholarly communication sector comprising scholarly societies, publishers, and related services providers to understand and respond quickly to the new normal.

The scholarly publishing industry is not used to significant changes in such short periods. With the outbreak of the pandemic, the industry was set to go through an unprecedented transformation. With accelerated change becoming the new norm, the industry would have to embed new realities.

Scholarly publishers have had to make radical shifts in day-to-day operations. The increase in accelerated publication activities, especially within the medical and life sciences sectors, is seen to be one of the most important for the future of scholarly publishing.

Breaking the Barriers to Knowledge Sharing

In November 2020, the Pistoia Alliance held a virtual roundtable with global pharma organizations’ leaders to discuss learnings from COVID-19. While the participants expressed increased willingness to share data among companies, they drew attention to the need for better collaboration infrastructure to make widespread data sharing a reality. There was broad agreement on the need to develop a centralized data repository where companies can easily share pre-competitive data. The panel also agreed on the need to remove barriers to sharing information outside of the pharma ecosystem.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a record surge in scholarly output that stressed the publishing system. Recognizing the need for swift dissemination of knowledge, journals began accelerating their decision cycles for publishing scholarly articles. As the crisis evolved, publishers have had to deal with double-digit growth in the volume of submissions. Consequently, there has been an increasing need to find qualified researchers who can quickly review new articles.

The pandemic reinforced the need to transmit information efficiently to governments and healthcare practitioners rapidly. The industry witnessed an increased focus on preprints during this period. Preprints are originally posted on public servers without peer review. The posting of preprints allows for immediate distribution and feedback much early in the publication process. To facilitate faster research dissemination, publishers are now making early versions of articles available for viewing.

Research papers typically take years to be peer-reviewed and published in a journal. Preprints have been vital to create awareness and to evaluate information about the virus and its effects. According to a Digital Science survey, while preprints started at comparatively low levels in early January 2020, these accounted for about one-quarter of research output by the beginning of May 2020. It is expected that this trend in publishing is here to stay.

Funders’ policy, practices, and budgets

 Researchers and societies and professionals are significantly impacted by environmental drivers, such as changes in funders’ policies, priorities, and processes. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on research funding policies, university budgets and practices, and researchers’ workload and workflows. In October 2020, Kudos, award-winning service for accelerating research impact, launched a new research project to provide publishers, societies, and service providers with critical intelligence about the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for research funding policy, university budgets and practices, and researchers’ capacity, processes and publishing choices. The fast-track study, which took place in November and December 2020, aimed to identify the rapidly emerging needs, enabling these stakeholders to plan effectively for 2021 and beyond.  Wiley and STM recently joined the Royal Society of Chemistry and Kudos for steering the project’s scope and direction. Other research partners to have joined this initiative include the American Chemical Society, American Society for Microbiology, and BMJ

Keeping the Momentum Going

Data from Nature’s first-ever international postdoctoral survey throws a sharp focus on the impact that COVID-19 has had on the ability to conduct and collaborate on research and the risks that it continues to pose for funding and support. At a time when peer-to-peer engagement and physical collaboration are restricted, the stats make a strong case for the necessity to continue to advance open science and data as a way to endure international academic development.

The openness of scientific communication is extremely valuable during a crisis. Momentum was already mounting to make work open access and share results early online. The pandemic created a greater sense of urgency. Several publishers across the globe suspended paywalls on all published content in support of the global research community. Making all content freely available meant ensuring one and all gain access to the best research.

In the light of the pandemic, several industry events were canceled or postponed. Organizations had to make the pivot to virtual meetings and events. The inability to meet in person shifted the spotlight to virtual meetings software. As technology gets better, we understand that virtual events can fill the gap left by large-scale cancellations and other constraints resulting from the pandemic. As long as these events are strategically planned, they can reach a wider audience using the right technologies. While we expect several events to resume onsite meetings soon, a few will seek to retain the online component offering remote participation.

While the scholarly publishing landscape is continuously evolving, the COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably had a dramatic impact on this evolution already.

Research Integrity

A few high-profile retractions as part of the COVID-19 coverage got extended news coverage. Increasing publishing volumes and pressures on fast publishing compete with the need of the editors and reviewers to perform detailed diligence. Technology solutions can play a key role here.

Conclusion

Nearly a year into the pandemic now, new reports on the impacts of COVID-19 on the scholarly publishing industry are becoming available. Questions on how long this new normal will last and the long-term effects on current and future publishing continue to remain unanswered. Industry experts expect to see more and more scholarly societies outsourcing journal publishing and contemplating other possibilities.

Some establishments are assessing new opportunities with scholarly content and reconsidering their meetings and other member services. Combining innovation with expanded content formats and more efficient digital production could be a real opportunity. In a recent interview, Judy Luther, President of Informed Strategies, notes that the next decade is going to rewrite the rules of the current digital publishing landscape and the way societies and scholarly publishers operate in it.

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