Government science advisers from the US and 11 other countries Friday called on scientific publishers to make all research related to the coronavirus and Covid-19 more freely available.
In an open letter, the advisers, including White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director Kelvin Droegemeier, asked the publishers to make data available through PubMed Central, a free archive of medical and life science research, or through other sources such as the World Health Organization's Covid database.
The other countries whose officials signed the letter are: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and the UK.
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"To assist efforts to contain and mitigate the rapidly evolving Covid-19 pandemic, basic science research and innovation will be vital to addressing this global crisis," the letter says. "Given the urgency of the situation, it is particularly important that scientists and the public can access research outcomes as soon as possible."
The letter calls for publishers to make information available in both human and machine-readable formats. In other words, instead of just PDFs of scanned documents, publishers should offer data in formats, such as spreadsheets, that artificial intelligence software and other computer systems can use.
“It's incredibly important that this happen,” says Michael Eisen, a UC Berkeley biologist and editor of the open-access science journal eLife. “Of course this should be the default for ALL science, not just Covid-19 science, and it should have been the default for the past 25 years. But I'm glad to see this happening now.”
Many researchers are already publishing their Covid-19 work through "pre-print" services like bioRxiv, which publishes papers that haven't yet been peer reviewed in an effort to get potentially life-saving research into public hands more quickly, and platforms like genomic data sharing service Gisaid.
BioRxiv cofounder Richard Sever, a molecular biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, welcomed the open letter. "I would go further and have government/funders mandate that research articles are shared as early as possible before review and formal publication," he says.
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This rapid sharing of data can help researchers and public health officials. For example, last month Nextstrain, an "open science" project that analyzes genomic data shared on Gisaid, was able to help confirm that Covid-19 had been spreading in the Seattle area.
But the rush to publish data and analysis can have downsides. For example, Nextstrain cofounder Trevor Bedford, a researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, tweeted last month that the outbreak of Covid-19 in Italy might be linked to a case in Munich that public health officials believed had been contained. Other scientists criticized Bedford's analysis, and he soon apologized.
“Nonprofessionals will certainly sometimes misinterpret the information on Nextstrain.org, but I strongly believe that we're pushing things toward more accurate public information,” Bedford said in a statement to WIRED. “I absolutely believe that transparency is the best thing for global public health to be aiming for right now.”