No revolution: COVID-19 boosted open access, but preprints are only a fraction of pandemic papers

Article by Jeffrey Brainard: “In January 2020, as COVID-19 spread insidiously, research funders and journal publishers recognized their old ways wouldn’t do. They needed to hit the gas pedal to meet the desperate need for information that could help slow the disease.

One major funder, the Wellcome Trust, issued a call for changing business as usual. Authors should put up COVID-19 manuscripts as preprints, it urged, because those are publicly posted shortly after they’re written, before being peer reviewed. Scientists should share their data widely. And publishers should make journal articles open access, or free to read immediately when published.

Dozens of the world’s leading funders, publishers, and scientific societies (including AAAS, publisher of Science) signed Wellcome’s statement. Critics of the tradition-bound world of scientific publishing saw a rare opportunity to tackle long-standing complaints—for example, that journals place many papers behind paywalls and take months to complete peer review. They hoped the pandemic could help birth a new publishing system.

But nearly 2 years later, hopes for a wholesale revolution are fading. Preprints by medical researchers surged, but they remain a small fraction of the literature on COVID-19. Much of that literature is available for free, but access to the underlying data is spotty. COVID-19 journal articles were reviewed faster than previous papers, but not dramatically so, and some ask whether that gain in speed came at the expense of quality. “The overall system demonstrated what could be possible,” says Judy Luther, president of Informed Strategies, a publishing consulting firm.

One thing is clear. The pandemic prompted an avalanche of new papers: more than 530,000, released either by journals or as preprints, according to the Dimensions bibliometric database. That fed the largest 1-year increase in all scholarly articles, and the largest annual total ever. That response is “bonkers,” says Vincent Larivière of the University of Montreal, who studies scholarly publishing. “Everyone had to have their COVID moment and write something.”…(More)”.