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Knowledge Hygiene

Published onApr 22, 2020
Knowledge Hygiene

With the COVID-19 pandemic now among us, much has been circulating about ways to stay healthy. From sharing 20-second songs to sing while washing your hands, to defining and understanding social distancing, society is rightfully making broad changes in the name of staying healthy and slowing the spread of coronavirus.

Publishers of research that could be leveraged toward developing a vaccine for the virus are also making changes.1 Some are ungating articles related to the disease. Some are speeding up the peer review process for quicker dissemination. Some are issuing calls for papers on this topic for future journal issues that, presumably, will be published openly to help the cause. And preprint servers, now receiving and publishing an unprecedented number of COVID-19-related publications, are stepping in as a natural venue for scientists to share early findings.2

And yet—

The rush on the part of scientists and scholars to access this information from otherwise profit-oriented publishers raises broader issues and questions about our scholarly publishing ecosystem. It makes it clear that there is also a malady plaguing how we produce, curate, share, and preserve knowledge for the betterment, and health, of society. We are left wondering: why should we rely on publishing ‘benefactors’ for vital knowledge? That Elsevier and Wiley, for instance, have released COVID-19 research should not be cause for applause, but rather a gesture that elicits further scrutiny. Why must our research response to a public health crisis — or really to any solutions for the public good — be mediated by private companies that are able to monopolize scholarly communications and thereby warp the communicated results?3

The battle over the control of knowledge is the defining struggle of our time, with a direct impact on progress in every area, from climate change and health to the types of governance that can function. This health crisis underlines the relevance of public infrastructure for open research. As compounding issues with distributing testing kits, transparently sharing data, and communicating research have shown over the past few months, we must reassess how our communication systems are structured to serve good science and a healthy society. 

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