Zika Emergency Puts Open Data Policies to the Test

Larry Peiperl and Peter Hotez at PLOS: “The spreading epidemic of Zika virus, with its putative and alarming associations with Guillain-Barre syndrome and infant microcephaly, has arrived just as several initiatives have come into place to minimize delays in sharing the results of scientific research.

In September 2015, in response to concerns that research publishing practices had delayed access tocrucial information in the Ebola crisis, the World Health Organization convened a consultation “[i]nrecognition of the need to streamline mechanisms of data dissemination—globally and in as close toreal-time as possible” in the context of public health emergencies.

Participating medical journal editors, representing PLOS,BMJ and Nature journals and NEJM, provided a statement that journals should not act to delay access to data in a public health emergency: “In such scenarios,journals should not penalize, and, indeed, shouldencourage or mandate public sharing of relevant data…”

In a subsequent Comment in The Lancet, authors frommajor research funding organizations expressed supportfor data sharing in public health emergencies. TheInternational Committee of Medical Journal Editors(ICMJE), meeting in November 2015, lent further support to the principles of the WHO consultation byamending ICMJE “Recommendations” to endorse data sharing for public health emergencies of anygeographic scope.

Now that WHO has declared Zika to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, responses from these groups in recent days appear consistent with their recent declarations.

The ICMJE has announced that “In light of the need to rapidly understand and respond to the globalemergency caused by the Zika virus, content in ICMJE journals related to Zika virus is being made freeto access. We urge other journals to do the same. Further, as stated in our Recommendations, in theevent of a public health emergency (as defined by public health officials), information with immediateimplications for public health should be disseminated without concern that this will preclude subsequentconsideration for publication in a journal.”(www.icmje.org, accessed 9 Feburary 2016)

WHO has implemented special provisions for research manuscripts relevant to the Zika epidemic thatare submitted to WHO Bulletin; such papers “will be assigned a digital object identifier and posted onlinein the “Zika Open” collection within 24 hours while undergoing peer review. The data in these papers willthus be attributed to the authors while being freely available for reader scrutiny and unrestricted use”under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY IGO 3.0).

At PLOS, where open access and data sharing apply as matter of course, all PLOS journals aim toexpedite peer review evaluation, pre-publication posting, and data sharing from research relevant to theZika outbreak. PLOS Currents Outbreaks offers an online platform for rapid publication of preliminaryresults, PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases has committed to provide priority handling of Zika reports ingeneral, and other PLOS journals will prioritize submissions within their respective scopes. The PLOSZika Collection page provides central access to relevant and continually updated content from acrossthe PLOS journals, blogs, and collaborating organizations.

Today, the Wellcome Trust has issued a statement urging journals to commit to “make all content concerning the Zika virus free to access,” and funders to “require researchers undertaking work relevant to public health emergencies to set in place mechanisms to share quality-assured interim and final data as rapidly and widely as possible, including with public health and research communities and the World Health Organisation.”  Among 31 initial signatories are such journals and publishers as PLOS, Springer Nature, Science journals, The JAMA Network, eLife, the Lancet, and New England Journal ofMedicine; and funding organizations including Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UK Medical ResearchCouncil,  US National Institutes of Health, Wellcome Trust, and other major national and internationalresearch funders.

This policy shift prompts reconsideration of how we publish urgently needed data during a public health emergency….(More)”