We need open science – crisis or no crisis

For years, the SNSF and other organisations have been demanding open science as the new normal. The corona crisis drastically confirms the validity of this demand.

Just days after the Sars-CoV-2 virus was identified in China in January 2020, details of its structure were already available online to researchers around the world who were looking for a solution. Results and data were disseminated at lightning speed. In their race against the virus, researchers needed - and still need - to collaborate across borders and enjoy free access to knowledge.

Tracing infection pathways

Richard Neher, professor at the Center for Molecular Life Sciences at the University of Basel, knows from his daily work how essential it is to have open access to data. In the space of a few weeks, he became a highly in-demand expert on the coronavirus pandemic. He has supported open science for a long time, including in the role of open access ambassador of the SNSF.

Using their self-developed Nextstrain web application, Richard Neher and his research team are investigating how viruses spread. "Because viruses have a high rate of error when replicating genetic material, they tend to mutate constantly, leaving a traceable path," he says. Circulating chains of transmission can be reconstructed with Nextstrain. In this way, one can see how viruses and outbreaks in different regions are related. But this can only work to the extent that the results of other researchers are accessible.

Access to the entire corpus

Such access is about more than just sharing each other's data (open research data) - it also implies unimpeded access to scientific literature (open access). "The Covid-19 pandemic shows just how urgently we need open access worldwide," says Matthias Egger, President of the National Research Council of the SNSF and head of the Swiss task force of scientists tackling the corona crisis. Like Richard Neher, he is an advocate of open science because both practitioners and researchers need to be able to access the entire body of scientific literature without delay. "This is why the SNSF is joining the appeal by the international coalition of library consortia to make all relevant content on Covid-19 available to everyone," Matthias Egger says.

Seeking sustainability

The library of ETH Zurich is currently supporting the dissemination of knowledge about Covid-19 by sponsoring the publication costs of all relevant articles that are published in an open access format. Matthias Egger is delighted by such initiatives. "For years, the SNSF has stood up for free access to research results. We hope that this recognition of open access and open research data will continue to be part of the scientific discourse even after we overcome the corona crisis."

Richard Neher and his team at the Center for Molecular Life Sciences of the University of Basel have meanwhile started work on a new software: Covid-19 Scenarios. The software can simulate different Covid-19 scenarios, taking into account factors such as seasonality or any precautionary measures taken by the authorities. But also for this planning tool, efficacy and precision will depend on having rapid and free access to research data.

More efficient use of resources

Clinical researchers in Switzerland are testing drugs and potential vaccines against the coronavirus. For this, they need open access to data and publications, as Annette Magnin emphasises. She is chief executive of the Swiss umbrella organisation for clinical research.

How do open research data and publications affect clinical research?

Open science enables more efficient use of scientific resources. For example, it prevents the same question from being investigated in two unrelated projects. If there is collaboration, one can start to merge the data. Or: if the researchers collect data for the same set of parameters, this will make the two studies more comparable.

Has the corona crisis changed attitudes towards open science?

It is too early to answer that question. But presumably the crisis will turbocharge the debate on open access to scientific knowledge.

Do you also see any risks in the rapid dissemination of data and findings?

Transparency on its own is not enough. You also need independent review – that is, someone who can impartially assess the quality and evidence of what's being disseminated.