Open Science: Steps Toward Equitable Access in Microbiology

May 16, 2023

Microbes are everywhere and impact everyone, making it critical that microbiology research is equitably accessible to as many people and places as possible. However, inequitable access to research and publications has long plagued the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) enterprise—including the field of microbiology—due to paywalls that limit viewing of science journal articles and lack of easy-to-use and free data-sharing platforms. While these obstructive practices were the standard for many years, the field is pivoting toward open access journals and research in response to the open science movement to broaden access to science for all.

Sharing research and data freely allows larger and more diverse audiences to view and assess information regardless of discipline, institution or location. With more equitable and inclusive accessibility provided by open access and open science, microbiology will be better able to advance discovery and innovation to benefit society.

What is Open Access and Open Science?

Four interconnecting puzzle pieces that each state the main aspects of open science.
Open Science is a collection of systems and people who freely share and engage in dialogues on science. Open scientific knowledge includes open hardware, source codes, educational resources and research data and publications.
Source: Unesco

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines open access (OA) as “free access to information and unrestricted use of electronic resources for everyone.” OA scientific journals are those that freely provide research articles on the internet. Many of these articles are also licensed under Creative Commons licenses and allow the work to be built on and expanded without rights restrictions. ASM currently has 6 OA journals and 7 hybrid journals that publish both OA and traditional articles.

Research articles are not the only aspect of science that can be accessible. Researchers have pushed for samples, data and methods, such as data codes and algorithms, to be freely available as well. The collection of freely available data and tools intended to propel STEM innovation is known as open science. “Open science encourages knowledge sharing, transparency, accountability and reproducibility—all of which are important pillars of the scientific enterprise,” said Anirban Mahapatra, Ph.D., Editorial Director for ASM Journals. Additionally, open educational resources can help training scientists gain new skills or competencies to review and assess information.

This open science approach allows diverse networks of scientists from all over the globe to access, review and analyze data with the goal of enabling faster analysis and scientific progress. Collaborative data sharing networks such as GISAID (repository of viral genomic sequences) and GitHub (code hosting platform) have emerged to foster open science collaboration and communication among diverse disciplines and to advance equity across the global scientific community. In support of open science, ASM expanded its open data policy in 2019, ensuring that data from ASM journal publications are publicly available.

How Does Open Science Impact Equitable and Inclusive Access?

Systemic inequity, exclusion and racism are well documented in the microbial sciences, and STEM in general. Traditional academic publishing systems, where the reader pays a fee to subscribe to a journal or view an article, add to this inequity. These fees quickly add up, disproportionally disadvantaging scientists at under-supported institutions or developing countries. OA articles and open science practices aim to improve scientific equity by allowing people to access research, regardless of their institution or country.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) states “openness increases transparency and reliability, facilitates more effective collaboration, accelerates the pace of discovery and fosters broader and more equitable access to scientific knowledge and to the research process itself.” To overcome barriers to adoption of OA and open science in STEM, NASEM convened the “Roundtable on Aligning Incentives for Open Scholarship,” co-chaired by Keith Yamamoto, Ph.D., Vice Chancellor for Science Policy and Strategy and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Yamamoto explained that open science enables and empowers a global and diverse community to participate in and contribute to science. “Achieving that diversity of thought and action is driven powerfully by the kinds of efficient, accessible communication and sharing of datasets, code, conclusions and interpretations enabled specifically by OA publication, and broadly by open science principles and values grounded in fairness, justice and equity.”

Freely accessible research communication and research tools for all would increase the exchange of ideas, data and techniques across the community of scientists, sparking faster innovation and discoveries generated by more global and diverse research groups. Mahapatra noted that easy accessibility of science allows contributors from different backgrounds to review and build on scientific research, helping expand the scientific community. In fact, researchers found increased citations and collaborative research associated with open science. Additionally, open science practices enable everyone—not just scientists—to explore scientific information and discoveries. By 2026, all U.S. taxpayer-supported research will be available to the American public without cost.

While open science helps overcome barriers related to equitable access, its implementation by academic institutions, funding agencies and scientific publishers has not been completely free of inequities. Many journals charge a fee to publish an article, and OA journals usually levy an article processing charge (APC) to compensate for the money lost from journal subscriptions and article-accessing fees. Funding for these fees is not usually available in developing countries or countries without ample support for research. This creates another level of publishing inequity where authors from more advanced career stages, well-supported research programs and less geographically diverse areas publish more OA articles compared to non-OA articles. Thus, current funding systems and publishing APCs can make it more difficult to publish OA research, which hinders the overall goals of open science and OA. Yamamoto stressed current systems must be “revised substantially” to enable open science to equitably serve all and recommended 3 approaches to make adoption of open science more equitable.
  1. Make access to scientific research, ideas and datasets promptly and equitably accessible to all, with journal articles affordable to publish through equitable subscription models where journals partner with institutions and funders to cover the bulk cost of publication. Notably, a few publishers have developed and are successfully piloting non-APC business models for OA.
  2. Align incentives in academia and evaluation metrics by funding agencies with the values and standards of open science.
  3. Strive for social and racial diversity of stakeholders on review panels, journal editorial boards, academic hiring and promotion committees and among meeting organizers, session chairs, speakers and attendees. This is important because as Mahapatra highlighted, “science still exists within a broader societal framework that isn’t free from systemic biases, inequities and racism… For open science to be equitable and accessible, key voices must be included in decision-making processes.”

Why is Open Science Important for Microbiology?

The tenets that make open science good for promoting equitable access also make it good for advancing the field of microbiology. As witnessed in the COVID-19 pandemic, interdisciplinary teams composed of scientists from around the world can solve complex and pressing issues quicker than those working in isolation. For instance, sharing of the first SARS-CoV-2 genome enabled scientists to study the virus much faster than had they been waiting to receive a sample. Researchers had an optimized sequence to test in an mRNA vaccine candidate within 24 hours of the first SARS-CoV-2 sequence posted on the OA Virological website, with a COVID-19 vaccine available for global emergency use less than 12 months from the emergence of a novel coronavirus. As climate change and urbanization led to a projected increased likelihood in zoonotic disease spillovers, open science allows microbiologists to respond quickly and efficiently to novel pathogens.

A hand reaches out to grab a holographic light blue sphere.
Open science provides enhanced transparency and accessibility.
Source: iStock
Open science, with its enhanced transparency and accessibility, can also help counteract misinformation about diseases. The World Health Organization (WHO) and funding agencies pushed for more open science and data sharing to combat public health emergencies during the Zika and Ebola virus disease outbreaks. These freely available, real-time results can help to mitigate misinformation and inform public health measures and individuals’ health decisions faster than traditional data sharing and scientific publishing practices. The recent rise of other viral outbreaks, such as polio and mpox, make increased accessibility of science and data important for public health.

OA articles are also more likely to gain media coverage, either by news media or on social media. News outlets heavily relied on COVID-19 preprints and journalists reached out to microbial researchers during the pandemic. This gave scientists a platform to dispel misinformation and build channels for dialogue between researchers and the public that are critical for improving citizen trust in science.

For Yamamoto, engagement with the community is a key aspect of open science. “Open science must offer access to STEM findings and thinking to all, not just STEM professionals. Community engagement in research planning and execution, and especially in technology development, is increasingly essential if STEM discoveries are to benefit all,” he said. “In the future, lay descriptions of the work may become a standard part of open science communications. In the meantime, scientists should make the effort to place their work in context for nonscientists.”

Increased attention on science can help improve the public’s engagement with science too, which is important when developing treatments for disease caused by microbial pathogens. Historically, clinical trial participation did not accurately reflect the groups most affected by diseases. Increasing public accessibility and engagement with science can help expand inclusion of ethnic and racial groups, historically excluded sexual orientation and gender populations and socioeconomic groups into future clinical trials. This increased diversity and inclusion ensures that microbial disease treatments work effectively for a broader range of patients.

How Microbiologists Can Support Open Science and Equitable and Inclusive Access

Efforts to make open science more accessible and equitable are ongoing, and this includes scientific journals at ASM. “I am optimistic that with active participation from our communities we can support the growth of open science in a sustainable and equitable manner. We have options that let researchers in different settings make their work open and we certainly welcome suggestions on how to make our processes easier,” Mahapatra said.

Deconstructing systemic inequity and bias in research will take time and the effort of many people. Fortunately, supporting open science and OA practices is a small step that microbiologists of any career stage, from first-year undergraduates, to tenured professors with decades of experience, can take to make the microbial sciences more inclusive, diverse, equitable and accessible.
  • Student or Postdoc: Follow open science best practices, such as writing descriptive methods and data analysis sections and upload data to collaborative data-sharing networks in accordance with your research group’s and institution’s policies.
  • Professor or Principal Investigator: Submit OA articles and implement open science data-sharing strategies in the research lab.
  • Educator: Use open educational resources such as assigning OA research articles for students and publish pedagogical research in OA journals.

Author: Rachel Burckhardt, Ph.D.

Rachel Burckhardt, Ph.D.
Dr. Rachel Burckhardt is a scientific literature reviewer for ASM, where she connects scientists to the latest COVID-19 research. Follow her on Twitter @RMBurckhardt.