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Zika Emergency Puts Open Data Policies to the Test

The Zika outbreak comes at a time of ongoing advances in data sharing policy, including a new call by the Wellcome Trust for journals and research funders to support open sharing of Zika research.  PLOS Medicine Chief Editor Larry Peiperl and PLOS NTDs co-Editor-in-Chief Peter Hotez call on researchers to make full use of these opportunities.

The spreading epidemic of Zika virus, with its putative and alarming associations with Guillain-Barre syndrome and infant microcephaly, has arrived just as several initiatives have come into place to minimize delays in sharing the results of scientific research.

In September 2015, in response to concerns that research publishing practices had delayed access to crucial information in the Ebola crisis, the World Health Organization convened a consultation “[i]n recognition of the need to streamline mechanisms of data dissemination—globally and in as close to real-time as possible” in the context of public health emergencies.

Image credit: <a href="">USDA,</a>
Submit your research to the PLOS Zika Collection. Image credit: USDA,

Participating medical journal editors, representing PLOS, BMJ and Nature journals and NEJM, provided a statement that journals should not act to delay access to data in a public health emergency: “In such scenarios, journals should not penalize, and, indeed, should encourage or mandate public sharing of relevant data…”

In a subsequent Comment in The Lancet, authors from major research funding organizations expressed support for data sharing in public health emergencies. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE), meeting in November 2015, lent further support to the principles of the WHO consultation by amending ICMJE “Recommendations” to endorse data sharing for public health emergencies of any geographic scope.

Now that WHO has declared Zika to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, responses from these groups in recent days appear consistent with their recent declarations.

The ICMJE has announced that “In light of the need to rapidly understand and respond to the global emergency caused by the Zika virus, content in ICMJE journals related to Zika virus is being made free to access. We urge other journals to do the same. Further, as stated in our Recommendations, in the event of a public health emergency (as defined by public health officials), information with immediate implications for public health should be disseminated without concern that this will preclude subsequent consideration for publication in a journal.”(, accessed 9 Feburary 2016)

WHO has implemented special provisions for research manuscripts relevant to the Zika epidemic that are submitted to WHO Bulletin; such papers “will be assigned a digital object identifier and posted online in the “Zika Open” collection within 24 hours while undergoing peer review. The data in these papers will thus be attributed to the authors while being freely available for reader scrutiny and unrestricted use” under a Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY IGO 3.0).

At PLOS, where open access and data sharing apply as matter of course, all PLOS journals aim to expedite peer review evaluation, pre-publication posting, and data sharing from research relevant to the Zika outbreak. PLOS Currents Outbreaks offers an online platform for rapid publication of preliminary results, PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases has committed to provide priority handling of Zika reports in general, and other PLOS journals will prioritize submissions within their respective scopes. The PLOS Zika Collection page provides central access to relevant and continually updated content from across the PLOS journals, blogs, and collaborating organizations.

Today, the Wellcome Trust has issued a statement urging journals to commit to “make all content concerning the Zika virus free to access,” and funders to “require researchers undertaking work relevant to public health emergencies to set in place mechanisms to share quality-assured interim and final data as rapidly and widely as possible, including with public health and research communities and the World Health Organisation.”  Among 31 initial signatories are such journals and publishers as PLOS, Springer Nature, Science journals, The JAMA Network, eLife, the Lancet, and New England Journal of Medicine; and funding organizations including Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UK Medical Research Council,  US National Institutes of Health, Wellcome Trust, and other major national and international research funders.

This policy shift prompts reconsideration of how we publish urgently needed data during a public health emergency.  It could also help to advance discussions on eventual departure from traditional biomedical journal publishing, a model that remains remarkably unchanged from its origins in 17th Century Europe. Public health emergencies expose two persistent hallmarks of this model that current technologies could help relegate to history: first, the assumption that significant academic contributions are limited solely to by-line authorship of traditional journal publications, and second, the requirement for lengthy, private review and re-review that unduly delay the availability of critically important study results.

In the meantime, the institutions that support and disseminate research stand ready. Only through the willing participation of research scientists, however, can the community realize the potential value of policies that support openness. We encourage researchers to make full use of the resources that journals, funders, and international organizations have provided to facilitate early and rapid sharing of the data that will lead to better understanding of this emergency and mitigate its potentially disastrous impact on human lives.

  1. Thank you for the above statement but an author of an article under review by PLOS NTD, the priority review process written about above does not seem to be happening. In the meantime, policy regarding science to be conducted (vaccines versus anti virals, for instance) is being made in a vacuum by governments and NGOs. Budgets are being drawn up now and the voices of good science are not being heard. We have government officials with us, pleading for a release date of our paper and we have no answer… because PLOS can’t give us an answer. It is in the interest of public health, to please make what you are writing on your website about priority publications a reality. Because the realities of length of time to publish in PLOS on Zika is hurting the effort to fight the Zika Virus.

  2. We appreciate and support the authors’ motivation to share their findings without delay. The article in question is under review and we are indeed working to make sure all Zika research submitted to PLOS NTDs is evaluated and reviewed as quickly and efficiently as possible.

    While published research articles in all PLOS journals must have received appropriate peer review, we would like to emphasize that PLOS journals and other signatories to the Wellcome Trust initiative agree that the peer review process should not delay appropriate sharing of data by the authors in this emergency. We encourage dissemination of research findings (with safeguards in place to protect participants and patients) at the earliest opportunity, including the option for authors to post the interim results or early versions of their research articles on a pre-print server while their work is under review. This step allows rapid dissemination of new research at an early stage that, in accordance with the new ICMJE policy, will not compromise eventual publication in a journal.

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