UCL News


Opinion: a changed landscape

5 August 2020

Professor David Price Vice-Provost (Research) and Pro-Vice-Provost Dr Paul Ayris (UCL Library Services) discuss Open Science and how Covid-19 is driving openness at every stage of research.

Open Access

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrust open science into the spotlight like nothing before. Much of the emphasis has been on access to research papers: preprint servers have received unprecedented attention and publishers have lowered paywalls. University College London (UCL) is one of several research organisations to have pulled its research on the disease together into a single open-access platform.

But the pandemic has also exposed shortcomings. It has become clear that simply opening up publications does not go far enough.

Open access could not prevent high-profile missteps such as the retracted papers about the treatment of Covid-19 in The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine. These have shown that while peer review can detect errors of interpretation, it is not designed to detect problems with in data.

Open peer review, where reviews are visible and shareable, offers a way to make reviewing more robust. If the review itself has a DOI, it becomes a citable part of the research literature. A framework for open review already exists in the shape of the Open Science Peer Review Oath of 2014, which commits signatories to signing reviews and taking a constructive, collaborative approach to reviewing.

Opening up the evaluation of science through processes such as peer review is part of a wider discussion around research transparency. Openness is a core part of research transparency, and UCL rewards open research practices in promotion decisions.

The university expects its researchers to make their methods, software, outputs and data open at the earliest possible point. Data should adhere to the FAIR principles of being findable, accessible, interoperable and reusable, and publications and software should be deposited in suitable repositories.

Affordability and accessibility

Although publications and data are necessary for tackling Covid-19, they are not sufficient. They need to be turned into technologies and treatments.

The crisis has prompted discussion around open access to intellectual property and technologies, and highlighted ethical issues around the use of IP. There are concerns about companies profiting from publicly funded inventions, and about how cost may restrict access to equipment and therapies.

UCL is constantly navigating an ethical path through a complex regulatory and commercial landscape. The route from laboratory to product or service is lengthy, uncertain and expensive. The costs and risks are generally met by external partners, who need to recover their investment.  

As a university, our ethical levers include who we work with and the terms of our partnerships. Achieving affordability and accessibility of healthcare treatments in a pandemic is clearly one situation where we would wish to use these levers.

For example, UCL has made the blueprints and manufacturing licences for the Ventura breathing aid, developed by the university in partnership with Mercedes, freely available for humanitarian use. But we have also restricted licensees’ profits and only granted licences to appropriate types of organisation. The University of Oxford has similarly committed to expediting royalty-free access to IP relevant to tackling Covid-19, again seeking to restrict commercial profit.

These considerations have limited UCL’s participation in some open innovation initiatives. Some of the world’s largest companies, including Amazon and Microsoft, have signed the Open Covid pledge, making their IP freely accessible to fight the pandemic. However, the Open Covid licence is available to all and places no restrictions on profiting from publicly funded research. This removes some of the levers we have as a university to promote affordability and accessibility. So while the pledge is an important part of the open-access IP toolkit, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

The debate on global access to healthcare innovation will accelerate, taking in structural issues of healthcare and innovation systems alongside IP arrangements. During the pandemic, UCL has learned important lessons about how to innovate at speed. We will build on these to enhance our contribution to society and the economy as the pandemic progresses, and beyond.

Health emergencies such as Covid-19 create an opportunity for fundamental changes to open science practice. As well as facilitating solutions to the crisis, the principles and methods of open science can help deliver an improved research landscape.

There is still much to be done and it’s too early to say what that landscape will look like. But the past six months have shown that new ways of thinking and doing are possible. 

This article was first published in ResearchProfessional News on 30 July.