Dr. Julie Decock, Scientist, Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI)
Biomedical research is a rapidly evolving area, with new insights and advancements being made at an accelerating pace. The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has clearly illustrated the exponential amount of data and scientific manuscripts being produced and made public every day. Since the pandemic emerged in December 2019, there has been a surge in research studies and academic papers, with more than 23,000 unique scientific articles published between January 1 and June 30, 2020. It is estimated that the number of articles doubles every 20 days.
It is of utmost importance in such unprecedented times to get the correct and relevant information out into the scientific community and the broader public in a timely manner. This philosophy is embedded in the Open Science movement, which strives to make scientific research and its dissemination accessible to everyone.
Several major publishers have pledged to make COVID-19 related articles freely available, however, in April 2020 an estimated 20% were found to reside behind paywalls and this number is likely to have risen since then. In an effort to take down these barriers and to make research findings readily available to all, many researchers have started to publish their manuscripts on preprint servers, which enables rapid sharing of findings without having to go through the peer review process. This way, ‘results can be disseminated quickly, potentially informing policy and speeding up research that could lead to the development of vaccines and treatments’, as highlighted by Diana Kwon in the prestigious science journal Nature.
In response to the surge in articles being posted on preprint servers, the two major platforms BioRxiv and MedRxiv have made their screening procedures more stringent to safeguard the quality of the published material.
Open science is a movement toward transparency in science that promotes open scholarship through open access to articles, research data, laboratory procedures, software code and research tools. Enhanced quality and integrity, efficiency, global impact, innovation and knowledge transfer and public engagement are among the many benefits of open scholarship for professionals and citizens alike.
First, open scholarship helps researchers to tackle the ‘reproducibility crisis’, as it facilitates the replication of findings using well documented methods and scientific data and discourages misconduct. The crisis is believed to affect different disciplines. For instance, up to 40% of cancer research findings cannot be reliably reproduced. Secondly, greater access to research findings also improves efficiency in science by reducing duplication of efforts and maximizing research opportunities using the same resources. Third, open scholarship fosters collaborative research across geographical areas and across professions, engaging researchers, organizations, policy makers, and investors, as well as the general public. A fourth aspect is that open access drives innovation and knowledge transfer, as the available data can be re-used and repurposed to develop new products, technologies, and services. Fifth, it promotes a greater awareness and engagement among the public, which in turn fuels further scientific advancements through increased trust and participation in scientific studies.
Finally, it has the potential to inspire young people to think ‘outside the box’ and use their inquisitive nature to come up with novel ideas. For instance, TIME magazine recognized 15-year- old Gitanjali Rao as the first-ever ‘Kid of the Year’ in 2020 for her technologies that enable detection of contaminated drinking water, opioid addiction, and cyberbullying. Without access to existing research data and tools, this young innovator might not have been able to accomplish these amazing feats.
Over the last decade, Qatar has invested greatly in education and research, supporting capacity building through the training and retention of highly skilled individuals, driving translational research, and cultivating a culture of innovation. Qatar National Library (QNL) offers various services to support open scholarship across the country. Open access agreements with major publishers and the Open Access Publishing Fund are just a few of its initiatives to support unrestricted global access to research originating from Qatar-based institutes.
In August 2020, QNL announced its inaugural Open Initiative Award for the advancement of open scholarship in Qatar. I was deeply honored to be the first recipient of the award for individuals, for promoting open scholarship through student mentorship and open access research at the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI), a pioneering research institute under Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU). The annual QBRI Summer Research Program for undergraduate students is an important initiative, which aims to train and develop the next generation of scientists and highly skilled researchers. As a mentor of the program, I strive to inspire young students to pursue an education and career in science by offering them laboratory-based hands-on experience, and helping them to explore the various aspects of open scholarship through a specialized workshop.
As part of my daily research activities, I strongly promote open access to data and research articles and aim to foster this philosophy in my research team members. Our recent work involves open access to research articles, for which we have received support from QNL, as well as open access to research data and software code. As a testament to Qatar’s efforts to support open scholarship, QNL supported the open access publication of almost 500 articles in 2019 and supported 352 authors from 18 different institutions in Qatar.
Among the lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic is the need to continue these efforts, and to make the practice of sharing scientific research, outcomes, research tools and knowledge visible and accessible to all.