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The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the need for digitalizing scholarly communication

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the way scholars communicate with peers, scientists, researchers, and people that matter the most in the scientific community.

From a rise in preprints and virtual conferences to global collaboration and data sharing, scholarly communication has undergone a massive uptick in terms of use and purpose. A joint report by Nasscom and McKinsey & Co. reveals that the Covid-19 pandemic has helped accelerate the digitization process across verticals. Technology service vendors have experienced a 30% increase in digital transformation agreements since the outbreak of the pandemic. The report notes that the world has leapfrogged on digital adoption by 3-5 years in the last few months.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some critical changes in scholarly publishing:

Preprints on the rise

 As the COVID-19 pandemic became more and more widespread, knowledge concerning the virus and its consequential disease increased. The healthcare system and policymakers worldwide counted on articles published on the virus to arrive at meaningful decisions. Since then, thousands of research papers have been published on COVID-19 and the Acute Respiratory Syndrome 2 (SARS-CoV-2).

Scientists and researchers raced to share their papers on COVID-19 and the SARS-CoV-2 virus through preprints. Preprints are non-peer-reviewed manuscripts publicly posted on the Internet in order to quickly circulate vital findings to the scientific community.

According to a Dimensions report, about 4% of the world’s research output was dedicated to the coronavirus in 2020. More than 30,000 COVID-19 articles were preprints, and 1/10th of all preprints focused on COVID-19. More than half of the preprints featured on sites such as Research Square, medRxiv, and SSRN.

2020 has been a pivotal year for preprints. As interest for early sharing increases, more momentum for preprints can be expected in 2021. It is therefore essential to find measurable ways to incorporate a review mechanism to strengthen the reader’s level of confidence. Technology could be a big enabler here to assist in flagging articles of concern.

Virtual Conferences are here to stay

 Conferences are an essential part of the professional lives of the scientific, medical, and research communities. Conferences create an environment favorable for networking and collaboration and help participants keep current with the latest trends, disseminate research, and bring together academics and practitioners.  Measures taken to combat the pandemic have led to cancellations of several meetings, workshops, and conferences forcing the scholarly community to find alternative ways for interacting and sharing information.

Advances in communication technology and high-speed broadband have made it possible to conduct conferences virtually. Virtual conferences are being seen as a solution to lessen the carbon footprints of travel to academic conferences. The online set-up also offers participants an improved experience, particularly when it comes to inclusion, accessibility, and longevity of content. Conference organizers can accommodate more delegates as the number of participants is not limited. Additionally, virtual conferences enable participants from under-funded countries to present their research to a broader community.

Virtual conferences are here to stay, and even after the restrictions are lifted, these will leave a lasting impression and impact on the scholarly community. They also provide additional opportunities to reach a global audience by localization through subtitles and dubbing services.

Boost in international collaborations

COVID-19 stimulated an unusual amount of scientific inquiry across the globe. The world has witnessed remarkable growth in international collaboration in scientific research since the 1980s.  This is the time when geopolitical shifts expanded openings for previously restricted researchers to form relationships beyond their nation/region. As the world witnessed a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases, the scientific community, spread across the globe, came together with the sole aim to research drug and vaccine development.

The scientific community opened its borders at a time when political leaders locked theirs. It could have been the first time in the world’s history that researchers from across the globe simultaneously focused on a single subject and that too with utmost urgency.

Online repositories made studies available months ahead of journals. Researchers, globally, identified and shared hundreds of viral genome sequences. Several clinical trials were launched, bringing together laboratories and hospitals worldwide.

The Covid-19 pandemic ignited the scholarly community in a way that no other outbreak had ever before. It was a matter of survival, and the need of the hour was to set aside personal academic progress and work collaboratively. New networks have been forged which will bloom in the years to come.

Transition to Open Access 

Different stakeholders across the scientific system have promoted Open Access (OA) over the last few decades. Publishers, researchers, and funders agreed to make research publications and other research outputs, such as data, open due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Several publishers continue to make their research articles immediately accessible via open repositories, like PubMed Central (PMC). Globally, embargoes have been lifted, paywalls abolished, and preprint servers like bioRxiv and MedrXiv have augmented research evaluation.

Several publishers opened-up their COVID-19 database, recognizing the need for urgent and open dissemination of research findings. Governments and international organizations worked closely with the research community towards a global effort for openness. Several initiatives were taken towards achieving this goal. In March 2020, an open letter issued by science advisors from several nations urged scientific publishers to open access to all research related to the virus. This initiative resulted in more than 50,000 research articles being made public. This was followed by the European Commission launching a Covid-19 data-sharing platform for researchers in April. Further, in May, the G7 Science and Technology Ministers issued a Declaration on Covid-19 recognizing the significance of open science for government-sponsored epidemiological and related research.

While the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, it is expected that more and more publishers will embrace open access.

 With FAIR set to become the new normal, the future is reproducible and open science. The future of Research data management is set to be the reuse of research data across academic and geographical boundaries. Over 1,100 representatives from 71 countries met virtually at the International FAIR Convergence Symposium, from November 27 to December 4, 2020, to advance solutions for the reuse of research data. Besides showcasing a cultural change towards more openness and transparency in science, the symposium demonstrated how the scientific ecosystem can act globally to make research data findable, accessible and reusable (https://www.go-fair.org/2021/01/21/data-based-science-fair-becomes-the-new-normal/).

 Conclusion

On the other side of the pandemic is a less unipolar and an increasingly digital world. With vaccines being rolled out, the Covid-19 crisis will very soon be behind us. Therapies have helped cut down on the death rates. New and low-cost tests are being developed. While most of society continues to be working through the disease, a post-pandemic world is fast coming into view. A lot of research on the impact of the vaccines, and the silent impact of the pandemic on physical, mental, and social health of individuals and communities will happen. Newer surveillance methods to be ahead of the next pandemic will need to be established.

Debate on open access business models topped the list of publishers’ concerns at the beginning of 2020. The pandemic further widened this discussion. Every phase of the scholarly publishing lifecycle has today undergone a significant change. Stakeholders have taken necessary steps to meet the expectations of scientific researchers globally. Open access, rapid open publishing, collaboration, and providing access to research results to new audiences are driving the change in scholarly communication. These trends are here to stay.

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