September 9, 2023

Pandemic, climate change and Open Access

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to funds being diverted away from causes such as climate change and sustainable development towards relief measures.

min read

2020 was a year of disruption. Not in the way innovators and technocrats prefer, but in a destructive sense. The wounds of the year have not healed, but they have forced the whole world to rethink their approach to life, society, work and so on. This article visits two interesting developments that happened during the  pandemic year. The first pertains to a noble pledge publishers have adopted towards the United Nations’ (UN) sustainable development goals, and the second to a parallel movement towards Open Access, which aims to make all (peer reviewed) knowledge freely accessible.

In October 2020, the United Nations, in their efforts to help the world achieve its sustainable development goals by 2030, called on publishers to sign up with them to assist in those efforts. These efforts include the acquisition and promotion of content that advocates for these themes, adoption of these practices and collaborations to achieve these goals. Several publishers around the world including Elsevier, Springer Nature Group, Taylor & Francis Group and others signed up with the UN. 

This initiative between publishers and the UN occurred in the middle of an unprecedented worldwide shutdown of universities where many related research projects take place. These projects require a combination of laboratories, collaborative spaces, and funding. During the lockdown, many researchers experienced disruption in funding and access to research spaces.

Between May and June 2020, Frontiers, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal, conducted a survey among their research community about the impact of COVID-19 on their work. About 20% of their subjects reported that they had to completely stop researching because of the pandemic. Interestingly, “we saw a sudden increase in manuscript submissions over this time,” said Chantelle Rijs, Frontier’s marketing and communications director. She attributes this to the increased time researchers have at home versus the laboratory where they would normally be present. From the increased submission of manuscripts, 6000 manuscripts during the lockdown period were COVID related.

Curiously, in the context of the UN initiative, some researchers from Frontier’s survey expressed concern that research funding that would otherwise be directed towards essential climate research is now being diverted towards COVID related research. As the vaccine rollout aims to bring us out of the pandemic, this reported shift in research funding may have to be corrected if publishers must stick to their sustainable development goals with the UN.

The general sentiment among many researchers has been to promote Open Access publishing. Since the pandemic, this sentiment received more support. Many felt that all disease related knowledge must be freely accessible. Recognizing this sentiment several publishing houses like the American Chemical Society, Oxford University Press, Springer, British Medical Journal, to name a few, have announced varieties of agreements between universities, libraries or vendors to work towards open access publishing. 

The Open Access movement was formalized in 2001 at the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Its objective in peer-reviewed publishing was to (in simple words) make all research freely available and accessible on the public internet. To facilitate this movement, they provided guidelines for businesses and software. In the last 20 years, some publications have begun the transition to Open Access while others were formed with the purpose of Open Access publishing. With the shift towards Open Access after the pandemic year, one can be certain to find more discussions and models for Open Access publishers around the world.

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Akshay Mehta
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