Open science through the lens of COVID-19

April journal club was led by Laura Borth. Journal Club review was written by Aaron Lowenstein.

The scientific community is driven by scientific societies, whose journals and conferences serve as the best channels for the dissemination of research. Journals typically require an extensive peer-review process before the publication of an article, making research accessible to the scientific community only after peer-reviewing is done. However, norms may be changing with the advent of open access platforms such as bioRxiv and medRxiv, which publish research that has not been peer-reviewed. In short, the purpose of open science is to make scientific research accessible to all, since open science platforms allow the sharing of scientific literature without the cost and lengthy peer-review process of journals. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the utility of open science, which has greatly facilitated global viral research collaboration. 

How will the rise of open science change the standings of less accessible, peer-reviewed journals? Furthermore, how will advances in virtual platforms, such as Zoom, and the increasing popularity of webinars affect the demand for in-person conferences? The CaSP Journal Club met in April to discuss the potential of open science, and how changes in scientific communication caused by this pandemic may have permanent effects on the scientific landscape. 

Removing barriers in science communication:

Open science platforms do not charge their readers or require a peer-review process before publication, allowing research to be viewed by a global audience much faster than research published in peer-reviewed journals. There are safeguards against blatant plagiarism upon submission, and submissions are typically peer-reviewed by referees after publication. Since any scientist with internet access can publish, open science platforms remove bias from the publication process and promote a level playing field. Removing barriers in science communication fosters collaboration and transparency, which has proven to be extremely beneficial in the current pandemic. For example, Chinese researchers published COVID-19 genome sequences and the resulting polymerase chain reaction assay protocols in public access platforms, which expedited the responses of other countries. Despite the recent flag waving by Chinese and American governments, scientists in China and the U.S. are leading collaborative research efforts, largely through open science platforms. Also, open science allows scientists to collaborate on promising but incomplete ideas that are not yet ready for publication. Even without the pressures of a pandemic, it is clear that removing barriers in science communication would surely aid scientific progress.  

Going even further, it could be argued that for science to be truly open, scientists should always be required to make their data public – though this is not a realistic expectation in many cases. For instance, companies cannot release data that would jeopardize their intellectual property.

The potential dangers of open science:

Open science promotes equality, transparency, and collaboration – however, the lack of an extensive pre-publication peer-review process lessens control over the release of information. While the peer-review process can be slow and frustrating, it standardizes the reliability of scientific literature to some extent. Although open science platforms typically have a post-publication peer-review process, the spread of unreliable data can have disastrous consequences. However, this also happens in peer-reviewed science. For example, in 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a study linking vaccines to autism in children. Even though the study was found to be deeply flawed and was retracted from the journal, it had already received substantial attention. This paper was one of the drivers of the anti-vax movement and fostered public mistrust of science and medicine. 

The public is not always receptive to clarification by experts, especially in the age of social media where false information is not hard to come by. Publishing studies before peer-reviewing may increase the chances that a study with flawed or vague findings is given undue publicity. There is no doubt that open science platforms have good intentions and will work quickly to remove harmful or misleading information, but, as we have seen in the past, the damage caused by the initial spread of misinformation is not always reversed upon its retraction. This is why scientists must be careful about the information that they make public and why having a solid peer-review process is so important.  

Online #SciComm during the COVID-19 pandemic

One consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is that we are realizing how efficiently we can interact online. Scientist or not, many people are now using digital platforms such as Zoom and WebEx to interact with coworkers, while webinars are taking the place of in-person conferences and meetings. As digital platforms continue to improve, webinars will likely become more prevalent. Currently, digital platforms do not allow the same quality of interaction as in-person conferences. However, as the technology progresses, will the utility of online interaction begin to outweigh the environmental and financial costs of travel? Or is there no replacing in-person interaction? It doesn’t seem that webinars will antiquate in-person conferences and seminars anytime soon, but certainly webinars are proving to be good facilitators of scientific communication during this pandemic. 


The utility of open science is clear: ideas can be quickly exchanged in an unbiased platform and on a global scale. The drawback is that the lack of a pre-publication peer-review process lessens oversight of the release of information. Open science is playing a crucial role in facilitating collaboration during the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue to be important in scientific communication moving forward. In addition, virtual platforms such as Zoom are changing the way scientists communicate and are proving to be especially useful in social distancing. Though this pandemic has affected drastic changes on our lives, we can be certain that COVID-19 will eventually pass. What is less certain is which changes will persist in our new normal.