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The unrestricted sharing of scientific papers during the coronavirus pandemic may have hastened the shift toward more open-access publishing, scientists believe, as several leading journals move to make content publicly available.

Last month, Britain’s Biochemical Society became the latest organization to make all of its published content free to view, citing the “extraordinary times with the current Covid-19 pandemic” as its reason for lifting paywalls on its Portland Press imprint until further notice.

It follows the decision by Springer Nature, announced on April 8, to offer researchers a route to publishing open access in Nature and most Nature-branded journals from 2021. The plan will allow the titles to become compliant with Plan S, an international open-access initiative that has softened its guidelines and expectations around hybrid journals, which allow some content to remain behind paywalls.

That move has prompted the editorial board of a leading Elsevier title, Neuron, to demand a similar switch to open access.

“The writing is on the wall for journals with a paywall, and many of us can no longer serve in good faith on the board of such journals,” says the letter calling for the change, which was signed by more than 75 leading scientists.

Matteo Carandini, GlaxoSmithKline/Fight for Sight Professor of Visual Neuroscience at University College London and one of the signatories, told Times Higher Education that the pandemic had influenced him and his colleagues to demand change. “This idea was simmering for a long time … But the COVID-19 quarantine has given us a bit more scope to think about broad matters such as this one rather than focusing on running our labs.”

In a statement, Elsevier said it was “already investigating options for providing immediate open access to Neuron and other Cell Press titles in a sustainable way.” It added that 90 percent of its 2,500 or so titles offered a gold open access option, and it pointed out that the number of open-access articles it published in 2019 was 40 percent higher than the previous year.

Robert-Jan Smits, the president of Eindhoven University of Technology, in the Netherlands, played a key role in the creation of Plan S while he was director general of research and innovation at the European Commission. He said there was “no doubt that the corona crisis will accelerate the move towards full and immediate open access,” which could soon become the “new normal.”

“The public letter of the board of Neuron makes it once more clear that the time has come to step away from the subscription-based model and make the output of scientific research available through open access,” said Smits, who called on Elsevier and other commercial publishers “to play the role society expects them to play and be the server of science instead of its ringmaster.”

“Let’s turn this abnormal situation, in which COVID-19-relevant papers and data are shared widely, into a normal situation,” added Smits.

Samuel Moore, research fellow at Coventry University’s Center for Postdigital Cultures, said he believed other titles could be ushered toward open access if their editors also “exercised their power in this way.”

“Editorial boards are an untapped source of power in the search for greater accountability over publishing and the move to open access,” said Moore.

However, a “more transformative shift” toward greater academic governance of journals was required to accelerate the transition toward open access and “more ethical and accountable publishing cultures,” he said.

“Without a shift in governance, editorial boards will still have to go cap in hand to publishers [to demand open access] rather than exercising control over the journals they edit,” said Moore.

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