“This was the first global pandemic that the scientific publishing industry had ever faced—while journals existed, no organised industry did when the 1918 flu pandemic occurred—and the first in a new digital age of internet communication and publishing. An estimated 1.5 million articles were added to the global literature in 2020—the largest single year increase in history, says Vincent Larivière, who studies bibliometrics at the University of Montreal, Canada. This peaked in April 2020, when many countries were deep into lockdown or applying heavy restrictions.
Some saw it as an opportunity. There were promises of more open science and publishing: a number of journals and research institutions agreed to a data sharing pledge issued by the funder the Wellcome Trust on 31 January 2020 that intended to “ensure that research findings and data relevant to this outbreak are shared rapidly and openly to inform the public health response and help save lives.”2 But it also stoked an already, some say, twisted industry—one that thrives on competitiveness—to publish the first data or to have the greatest visibility and impact. This changed the ways that papers were produced and vetted, for good and bad….
Medical journals halved their turnaround times in the first half of 2020.5 Despite the unknown nature of the virus and its science, editors took far less rather than more time over decisions, a February 2023 analysis of 339?000 papers has found.6
Naomi Lee, senior executive editor for research at the Lancet during the pandemic, recalls how the usually rare practice of “fast tracking” select papers was expanded so that “practically everyone and everything was accelerated with the goal of disseminating critical knowledge.” The PubMed database shows that the five most cited articles in the Lancet since 2020—most reporting early coronavirus data—were accepted within 14 days and published within 22 days of receipt.
Alarms were raised early on about the mix of sheer volume and unprecedented speed….
Proponents of open science had breathlessly heralded a revolution.10 medRxiv, a BMJ affiliated preprint server, saw a 10-fold rise in submissions within two months of the first reported covid case. But this enthusiasm receded, and submissions at medRxiv and others stabilised by mid-2020.
Analysis shows that just 5% of all peer reviewed journal articles about covid-19 published in 2020 started out as preprints.11 And, while some pivotal trials such as Recovery and Solidarity were first reported as open access preprints, none of the phase 3 covid vaccine trials supported by Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna, or Pfizer was, and only the Oxford-AstraZeneca phase 3 trial report was published with a gold open access licence. A 2022 evaluation by Wellcome of the data sharing commitment it initiated found that fewer than half of signatories’ covid papers contained information about where and how to access available data,12 raising concern about a lack of transparency, particularly in clinical trials.
Progress towards more open research has also disappointed. While the leading publishers agreed to make their covid content open and reusable,2 Wellcome’s assessment found that just 46% of signatories’ covid papers were genuinely open access, where re-use is permitted and authors retain copyright.12
Instead, most journals retained commercial rights and simply took down a paywall (“bronze” open access15), says Larivière. He adds that, while major publishers including Elsevier, Springer Nature, and Wiley continue to make covid content freely available, only about half of papers on the climate crisis are similarly available….”