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What the Zika virus means for STM publishing

The open access approach being used for Zika virus research may be beneficial for all types of scientific publishing.

For years, scientific, technical and medical publications have been presented with the idea of shifting toward open access journals. Many believe that digital content and interactive platforms have the power to transform the world of scientific research because they facilitate more collaboration, quicker distribution, broader discoverability and easier reproducibility ultimately fueling innovations and developments. On the other hand, some argue this model would negatively impact the quality of STM publications and that the existing publishing process is lengthy and complex to ensure the highest standards of excellence.

However, the arguments against open source platforms have been put to the side at least for now. In response to the international public health concern of the Zika virus, a wide range of organizations, academic journals and funders have recently signed a statement of commitment agreeing to openly share all scientific data and research relevant to the crisis. In an effort to reduce outbreaks, the initiative consists of making all pertinent findings and information free and accessible to the global scientific community.

"Research is an essential part of the response to any global health emergency. This is particularly true for Zika, where so much is still unknown about the virus, how it is spread and the possible link with microcephaly," stated Dr. Jeremy Farrar, director of Wellcome Trust and one of the signatories. "It's critical that as results become available they are shared rapidly in a way that is equitable, ethical and transparent. This will ensure that the knowledge gained is turned quickly into health interventions that can have an impact on the epidemic."

The open access approach could widely benefit the scientific community.
The open access approach could widely benefit the scientific community.

Problems with STM research
This initiative overrides the traditional process of STM publishing by forgoing the peer-review and journal submission process, making the information free to access and ensuring the scientists will not be penalized for premature publication. It may sound like a dream come true for researchers, many of who are often eager to get their work out and into the hands of others.

Backed by some of the most prestigious organizations, journals and funders, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the United States National Institute of Health and the New England Journal of Medicine, it is hard to ignore what this effort might indicate about whether the STM community should alter its approach to publishing. Following the global health crisis, arguments against open access journals were dismissed and, put simply, an exception was made. In essence, the coalition is admitting there are benefits to openly sharing information and data and releasing research as quickly and widely as possible.

In a recent article for The Guardian, structural biology professor Stephen Curry argued that this statement of commitment underlines several glaring issues with the way scientific publishing today works. For example, although the severity of the Zika crisis should not be minimized, there are also many other life-threatening illnesses, such as West Nile, HIV and Malaria, that could benefit from such open source STM publishing policies. Curry raised the question: Are the other worldwide concerns not deserving of this "imperative" initiative?

"The open access approach could be used to widely benefit the scientific community."

The source also noted that this committed effort isn't a permanent solution, though it should be. He indicated that the current state of scientific and scholarly publishing is plagued with an unfortunate lack of humility and inefficient prioritization; the system is designed in a way that makes it all too easy for researchers to focus more on being published in highly-renowned STM journals than they are on the research itself.

"[The] central problem is that our research ecosystem provides no incentives for publishing reliably, rapidly or openly all features that one might hope to see in a system that works effectively," Curry wrote.

Future of interactive journals
A downside of open source STM journals is that providing free access would hurt publishers who rely on processing charges. In addition, some believe such works could become diluted. However, despite these disadvantages, there is a vast array of benefits. For example, while paywalled articles may be cited more frequently, studies have found that open access works have the potential to reach a broader audience because they are more often shared on social media.

To provide the world with the best possible advancements, it is important that there are a wide range of scientists and researchers able to find and build upon previous findings. And although there are mixed responses to the idea of interactive or open access journals, it is likely that the digital platform will gain popularity, not just among the STM community, but all other fields, such as education. As more organizations leverage the Internet of Things to communicate and information continues to be readily-available, it is only a matter of time before authors choose these innovative platforms as their preferred method of delivery.

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