2020 in review: A year in Open Science policy 

Stephan Kuster, Head of Institutional Relations

How to begin to summarize what 2020 has meant for policy and science? It feels like a decade’s worth of catastrophic news and disruption, followed by unprecedented innovative responses.  It was also the year that proved beyond doubt that access to scientific knowledge must be free and immediately open to effectively address the challenges faced by society. 

Enduring impact: COVID-19  

Above all else, 2020 will always be remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In late December 2019, the first reports of a new pulmonary disease emerged from China. Within four months, Europe and many other regions were in full-scale lockdown, with measures that themselves resulted in wide-scale disruption. The first wave of COVID-19 was in full swing.  

In response, we at Frontiers launched our Coronavirus Knowledge Hub,  a resource offering up-to-date, trusted information and analysis on COVID-19 and coronaviruses, open to all people everywhere. Later in March, our Coronavirus Funding Monitor  became available to help researchers find emergency research grants for COVID-19 related research, tracking 1.5BUSD of allocated emergency research grants.  With this tool we were able to observe firsthand – and help coordinate – funders’ response to the pandemic.  

The academic publishing community, including major paywall publishers, played its part by pledging to make coronavirus content freely available and reusable. By the start of December, more than 186,000 peer-reviewed articles on COVID-19 related research were published, mostly Open Access. A fantastic gesture and perhaps one that will, in time, apply to all research as the OA movement strengthens.  

Policy in the Spotlight  

The COVID-19 crisis put a spotlight on science policy like none other. The pandemic has forced policymakers to make public health decisions with huge economic and, at times, political consequences.   

Our survey report of 25,000 researchers revealed researchers in many countries felt that policymakers had not sufficiently taken scientific advice into account, as covered by The Economist in November.  

To bridge the gap between policy and science, we recently launched the Frontiers Policy Labs, a hub that connects researchers, science policy experts, and decision-makers. It will strengthen the use of scientific evidence to prepare for and react to future crises. We hope it’ll encourage open and constructive dialogue, enabling a new, more interdisciplinary ways of approaching challenges in the name of progress.  

Revolving doors of science  

In 2020, the publishing world prepared for the full implementation of Plan S, which mandates all publications on research financed by 25 major funders must be published in an OA journal or platform.  Over the last few months, some of the rules around Plan S’ compliance have been detailed, including a choice of price transparency frameworks and a novel Rights Retentions Strategy, leading to a debate  on whether this lets paywall publishers participate without having to change their business model, potentially weakening the central aim of Plan S. 

In a similar vein, Frontiers called together a group of fully Open Access publishers to scrutinize so-called Transformative Agreements, under which subscription journals can claim to be Plan-S compliant by offering a gold OA option on a paper-by-paper basis.  Sharing concerns about the direction of scientific publishing more broadly, these publishers will now formally continue as a sub-group within OASPA.  

However, progress was made in Open Science in 2020:   

  • In the US, meetings with stakeholders and a public round of evidence gathering occured to prepare for an executive order mandating OA for federally funded research. No tangible result has emerged, yet it catalyzed grassroots support for: #OAintheUSA. Expectations are that the incoming Biden administration will pick up the initiative.  
  • UNESCO conducted a global consultation of the academic community over the summer to prepare a Recommendation on Open Science, for adoption in 2021. Similarly, in October, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNESCO, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights statement issued a joint call for Open Science, to which we offered our support.   
  • In November, the UN launched a new partnership of publishers committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDG Publishers Compact. Frontiers and other signatories committed to promoting research and education and to work inside and outside the company to support the SDGs.  
  • Frontiers joined the Initiative for Open Abstracts (I4OA), which advocates for the unrestricted availability of abstracts in scholarly communications. By joining I4OA, our abstracts will be deposited on Crossref, adding a layer of support to the OA community’s mission to make all science open.  

Looking to 2021  

Throughout 2020, we observed with pride and awe the resilience of our international scientific community as we came together to tackle one of the biggest challenges humanity has faced in a century. In 2021, the mitigation of the COVID-19 pandemic will put a renewed emphasis on the value of evidence-based policy – we must seize this opportunity in the handling of other challenges faced by society, such as climate change. The transition in the US government is cause for hope; the US will now certainly rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and more generally work to reverse the policies of the Trump administration.  So, even in the midst of this terrible pandemic, we will continue to remain optimistic that objective thinking will better guide policy to the ultimate objective of helping all people live a healthy life on a healthy planet.