The Coronavirus Is Already Changing the Way We Think About Scientific Cooperation
Viruses are constantly evolving through interactions inside “clouds.” Inside these swarms, they pick up traits from their neighbors, forming novel strains that more efficiently hijack cells or are harder for the immune system to neutralize. Essentially, they cooperate.
To fight the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe, scientists are also cooperating, and on an unprecedented level.
Ditching the normal publication process for research — which moves slowly and oftentimes offers access only to those who pay — more than 50 journals and publishers signed a statement in January pledging to share findings rapidly and openly and to make all of their publications related to Covid-19 and the coronavirus “immediately accessible” and licensable “in ways that facilitate reuse.”
Michael A. Johansson, a biologist with the CDC, and Daniela Saderi, co-founder of PREreview, an open source preprint platform for collaborative writing, meanwhile launched Outbreak Science Rapid Prereview, an open source platform for rapid review of preprints related to emerging outbreaks. Scientists have uploaded more than 750 coronavirus-related preprints onto medRxiv and bioRxiv, free online archives and distribution services for unpublished preprints.
“Outbreaks of pathogens such as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that is responsible for COVID-19 move fast and can affect anyone,” Johansson and Saderi wrote in a letter to the journal Nature announcing their project. “Research to support outbreak response needs to be fast and open, too, as do mechanisms to review outbreak-related research.”
The willingness to cooperate goes beyond academic research. Thousands of health care workers, engineers, seamstresses, and researchers are sharing and discussing technical designs for scarce commodities like masks, ventilators, and respirators in a Facebook group titled Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies. The community launched an open-source 3D-printer ventilator project, which produced a design in seven days. According to Forbes, the design will be reviewed by the Irish government by as early as next week. Designers hope countries with fewer resources will review the design for emergency use. Just One Giant Lab, a nonprofit organization based in Paris, France, that aims to accelerate solutions by offering decentralized open-source alternatives to the academic research model, is working with thousands of people on 15 projects around the world, including an open source face mask challenge with more than 40 designs, environmental monitoring, and risk assessments.
All of this represents a departure from the status quo. Knowledge derived from academic research is usually tightly controlled by market forces, and since 1986, the cost of journal subscriptions has increased 3,000% above inflation. Only people connected to universities in economically advanced countries and the extremely wealthy are able to afford such rates. Activists and librarians have unsuccessfully battled large publishers over open-access issues for decades, and researchers often lament these restrictions, noting that they cannot even distribute their own work for academic purposes without a paid-for license.
Hospitals are often bound to long-term contracts with monopolistic entities that create conditions for the use of outdated, sometimes dangerous, medical supplies and the inflexible stocking of equipment.
To supply hospitals for the global pandemic, communities are working outside of this established system — in some cases despite it. When a hospital in Italy ran out of life-saving valves needed for coronavirus treatment, several volunteers sought immediate solutions. They asked the manufacturer of the valves for blueprints to print replicas, but, citing property rights, the company declined. So the rogue volunteers printed the valves for $1. At least 10 people benefited from the effort as of March 17, The Verge reported. “[The patients] were people in danger of life, and we acted. Period,” one volunteer said in a Facebook post.
People across the globe are reaching out to the open source community group on Facebook for medical supplies. On March 20, Andrew Cureton, a supervising doctor based in Virginia posted an urgent message: “I supervise an urgent care in Arlington, VA just outside Washington, DC. If anyone is able to quickly print 3–12 face shields such as the Prusa design, we could cover [the] cost of materials and shipping. These will be used to preserve our dwindling supply of respirators.”
“The free action of decentralized volunteers,” Cureton told OneZero, “has helped me protect the physicians, staff, and patients in my office. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity and ingenuity of the makers in this group. The face shields they are providing will allow me to limit droplet contamination and extend the use of our N95 respirators by a factor of five.”
Some veteran scientists view this level of cooperation as unprecedented. “This is a very different experience from any outbreak that I’ve been a part of,” epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Science. Isabella Eckerle, of the Geneva Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases, told the publication it feels like scientists are “transitioning to a completely new culture of doing research.”
One enabler of this change are “preprint” platforms, which allow researchers to post manuscripts openly prior to the sluggish peer-review process. Since 2011, nearly 50 new platforms have launched to support preprint publication. But as of 2019, the number of biology preprints was still just 2.3% of published articles. As more scientists get to know these platforms through the Covid-19 pandemic, norms could shift.
Preprint platforms also allow for the sharing of “failed” studies. Because journals tend to prioritize novel, exciting research, and pharmaceutical companies are financially incentivized to publish studies that put their product in a favorable light, these studies are otherwise left unpublished. It’s estimated that half of all clinical trials never report results, which means other scientists may waste time exploring solutions that have already been proven not to work, and products on the market may not be as effective as they appear.
As Cureton puts it: “There’s no top-down solution coming. The spirit of medicine has always been to focus on individual patients and communities. Clinicians and makers need to work together to solve their local needs.”
Cooperative infrastructure will remain once the dust settles. Transforming it into a permanent reality — in the face of past norms and looming power structures — will require guts. As the late computer prodigy Aaron Swartz wrote, “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” Whether researchers will resist returning to the status quo is an open question.