The scientific research community has been divided by a conflict between publishers and internet pirates, in a battle over access to knowledge, copyright laws and public health. Despite ongoing antagonism both sides are now doing their bit against the COVID-19 outbreak.
Research into the development of COVID-19 treatments has seen scientists across the world using social media to share gene sequences and medical reports, disregarding an often elaborate system of peer review and academic publishing. While the quickened process can risk bad science coming to the fore, it can benefit research as information, once behind paywalls or stuck in academic processes, is now free to access.
A researcher studying COVID-19. Photo: AFP/ Tolga AKMEN
But for some the processes are not quick enough.
Internet pirates have taken the law into their own hands, leaking over 5,000 pay-walled papers on coronavirus, of which COVID-19 is one, on to Reddit. The user, 'Shrine,' who posted the articles on the 'Open_Science' subReddit page, wrote "I found an early-release coronavirus article with a $35.95 access fee for non-subscribers. The fury I felt brought tears to my eyes," the post read.
The pirates, described by 'Shrine' as "me and a few friends," trawled through Sci-Hub, a site that provides research papers without regard to copyright, searching for coronavirus related content in titles or abstracts of papers from 1968-2020. Subsequently releasing some 5,352 on the online archiving site the-eye, linked to on Reddit post.
"We are on the first step towards compiling a complete open-access Corornaviridae [coronavirus family] research catalog for the world's scientists, journalists, and virology experts to draw from to fight the virus and save lives," the post read.
Shrine is part of a significant movement of open source advocates, or internet pirates that are disregarding copyright laws, risking the wrath and legal consequences of some of the world's biggest academic publishers.
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For scientist and author of 'The [R]evolution in Open Science,' Jon Tennant "The reason why these pirates exist is because the scholarly publishing industry has failed to do the task that we have entrusted it to do. Make knowledge public."
However, the race to understand and combat COVID-19, has seen publishers take the unprecedented step of making a number articles and studies on coronaviruses free to access.
Publishers Wiley, Springer Nature and Elsevier all signed onto the Wellcome Trust's pledge to share research data and findings relevant to COVID-19.
A spokesperson for Wiley, told CGTN Europe "We made research related to the coronavirus freely available because it is the right thing to do.
"We have made over 1,000 articles on coronavirus freely available. We also created a microsite on Wiley Online Library with curated content (around 57 articles) based on the relevancy of this specific outbreak. As new research on this coronavirus outbreak are published, we are making it free right away."
Both Wiley and Elsevier (publisher of The Lancet) have set up a free-access resource page containing numerous studies on coronaviruses. "We are committed to decent global corporate citizenship," said Judy Versus, Wiley's executive vice president. "Freeing up research to support researchers during a global health emergency is simply the only thing to do.”
While Shrine praised and linked to the Elsevier and Wiley online libraries, Tenant believes that the publishers have not gone far enough. They should "make their life-saving research publicly accessible, and put the pirates out of 'business,'" adding "public health security should not be dependent on pirates.”
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Paywalls have previously been linked to exacerbating the west African Ebola crisis of 2013–16.
Then-chief medical officer of Liberia's Ministry of Health, Bernice Dahn, co-authored a piece in the New York Times in 2015, decrying a paywall on a 1982 article on her country's susceptibility to an Ebola outbreak.
Dahn denounced the prohibitive cost of the article that could have helped train Liberian medical workers, writing that "Even today, downloading one of the papers would cost a physician here $45, about half a week's salary.”
Tennant, who cites estimations that knowledge in the paper could have helped save over 2,000 lives, states that the 1982 article was "published in a next to useless manner and inaccessible to those who needed it.
The industry has moved on since 2015. As shown by the releasing of papers and the long list of signatories to the Wellcome Trust's pledge, there is now a stated understanding by publishers of the necessity of open, free to access research in times of global health crisis.
While remaining critical of the publishers, Tenant praises the fight against COVID-19, as a new paradigm. "The Coronavirus case, it is beautiful. Data is flowing, researchers are working together to solve the problems, find a cure, share knowledge, and save lives, unconstrained by paywalls, patents, and competition.
"Saving lives and improving society is the key. So why is this not the default setting for all global research? People dying should not be required for researchers to wake up and do their jobs properly."