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Covid-19 Accelerates the Push for Open Access in Research

DOHA—As the world struggled to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, Unesco called for open access to scientific information to facilitate research and information exchange on Covid-19.

The international scientific community was quick to respond.  Several organizations started sharing their research openly and major scientific journals dropped subscription fees for articles related to Covid-19, making them available to all.

“If we can do this for Covid-19, which is a grand challenge, what about other challenges like respiratory disease, cancer and cardiovascular disease?” asked Stephan Kuster, head of institutional relations at Frontiers Media, a Switzerland-based publisher of peer-reviewed open-access scientific journals. “We want to make all science open in all fields.”

Kuster was among the speakers at a virtual discussion hosted by Qatar National Library on October 22 in Doha.

While almost 100 percent of research articles published about the novel coronavirus is available on an open-access basis, he said, only about 30 percent of research articles about cancer, 26 percent of articles about cardiovascular disease and 21 percent of articles about respiratory disease have open access.

The discussion on the pandemic’s impact on libraries, scholarly publishers and research institutions, was part of Qatar National Library’s celebration of the International Open Access Week, held annually in late October.

Making Research Papers Free to All

In its simplest definition, open access means making intellectual property available free on the Internet. Instead of publishing research data and articles behind subscription-only paywalls, governments, universities or the scholars themselves pay to have their research published, and it’s free to all readers after that.

Supporters of open access in research say this model would ensure rapid circulation of scientific information and enrich the dialogue between researchers, thus contributing to scientific development. (See related article “Research Results Are Increasingly Available for Free.”)

The concept has been gaining ground in the Arab world, but progress is still slow.

According to data on Unesco’s Global Open Access Portal, from 2017, only 37 out of 2,900 open-access digital repositories then listed on the Global Directory of Open Access Repositories (OpenDOAR) were in Arab states.

In 2017, only 37 out of 2,900 open-access digital repositories listed on the Global Directory of Open Access Repositories (OpenDOAR) were in Arab states, according to Unesco’s Global Open Access Portal.

The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) then indexed 3,977 open-access articles published in Arabic, according to the Unesco portal. That number represented just 0.02 percent of the nearly two million articles then available on the directory. (DOAJ now indexes more than five million articles; figures on how many of them are in Arabic were not available.)

Scant Financial Support for Research

Kareem Darwish, a principal scientist at the Arabic Language Technologies group of Qatar Computing Research Institute, says that the high cost of research is a major obstacle to open access in Arab countries.

“The absence of supportive government institutions or large companies that back research drives people to invest from their own income in their research projects, which discourages researchers from sharing it openly,” he said.

Scant funding for scientific research is a continuous problem in the Arab world.

According to a 2015 Unesco report on the state of science worldwide, gross domestic expenditure on research and development in Arab countries is less than 1 percent of their gross domestic product. (The report is titled “Unesco Science Report: Towards 2030.” An Arabic edition was published in 2019.)

The situation has been made worse by economic restrictions and budget cuts imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. (See a related article, “Health and Economic Crises Threaten Arab Funding for Research.”)

However, Walid Qoronfleh, director of health-care research and policy at World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH), says that it’s at these critical times that policy makers should think more of open access.

“Covid-19 is a great example of what happens when you don’t share information,” Qoronfleh said during the Qatar panel discussion. “We have been impacted negatively by Covid-19 largely because of lack of streamlined information sharing.”

Reluctance to Publish Open Access

A Qatar University poll shared during the discussion revealed that more than half of the respondents (54.5 percent) were unwilling to deposit the final version of their research papers on an open-access platform.

“Researchers in the Arab world are usually reluctant to make their research freely available due to intellectual-property issues and fears of being the target of scientific theft,” said Dalia Moussa Abdallah, a lecturer of librarianship and information science at Cairo University.

Another concern for researchers is the quality of open-access publishing.

“The idea of paying for publishing makes me feel that the decision of publishing a certain paper is based on profit and not on the quality of the research,” said Tamer Elsayed, an associate professor of computer science at Qatar University.

“The idea of paying for publishing makes me feel that the decision of publishing a certain paper is based on profit and not on the quality of the research.”

Tamer Elsayed
 An associate professor of computer science at Qatar University

Some Arab countries, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, promote open access through initiatives that make open-access publishing affordable or even free for researchers. According to the Unesco report, the two countries have the highest citation rates of research papers among Arab states.

Qatar has three main open-access initiatives, including the Open Access Author Fund of the Qatar National Library under which the library pays for article processing fees on behalf of the authors for articles published in open-access journals.

Another initiative is the QSpace platform of Qatar University, which hosts an online collection of scholarly articles and academic activities of faculty, students and guests of the university.

In addition, Hamad bin Khalifa University Press, in Doha, hosts a peer-reviewed online open-access publishing platform called QScience.

New Challenges Caused by Covid-19

Despite institutional support for open access in Qatar, initiatives like QScience face new challenges and uncertainties due to the coronavirus situation.

“The main challenge was working remotely as a team and developing our communication skills virtually,” Rima Isaifan, head of academic and journals publishing at HBKU Press, said during the panel discussion.

“We also have concerns about funding. We don’t know what will be the financial outcomes of this pandemic, how will the publishing sector be affected and for how long,” she said.

The situation is more challenging for open-access periodicals in less wealthy Arab countries like Egypt.

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According to Aziza Ali Mohammadi Abu Al-Enein, subeditor of the journal Cybrarians, open-access periodicals in Egypt suffer from shortage of funding, lack of academic recognition and distrust of some readers in published papers.

Cybrarians is an Arabic-language, digital open-access publication that specializes in bibliography, library science and information resources. It depends on voluntary efforts of its editorial board to be able to provide its issues for free. Abu Al-Enein says that free open-access publications are especially beneficial for young researchers who cannot afford publishing costs or access to scientific research in commercial scientific journals.

Qoronfleh, of WISH, recommends looking at open access in a broad context, not just in terms of publication but also in terms of sharing information with stakeholders, partners and society at large.

“There is a tendency to operate in silos, guard the information and not share it,” he said. “But collective information that is shared in a collaborative spirit, can identify gaps, challenges and opportunities and act as a catalyst for evidence-based decision making.”


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