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Libraries Are Leading Advocates Shaping and Influencing Greater Access to Information during COVID-19 Crisis

closeup of person typing on laptop computer
image CC0 by Glenn Carstens-Peters

As higher education and most of daily life has withdrawn from physical spaces and shifted to a fully online environment to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, librarians and library collectives have focused their already strong communication and advocacy networks to ensure continuous access to information for scholars and all others who depend on it now.

Viewing this moment with scholars at the center, the coronavirus pandemic is revealing both what works and what doesn’t in scholarly communication. The scale of this disease presents a dire use case for open science—the rapid sharing and evaluation of research, and an emphasis on machine readability and computability to handle volume and speed. That international governments, universities, funding agencies, publishers, and tech companies are calling for and enabling the sharing of COVID-19 information demonstrates that the future of all knowledge and discovery will be accelerated by openness and interoperability. Building a bridge to that future state will require new collaboration among and between research institutions and universities and their libraries, private and federal funding agencies, scholarly communities and societies, and the private sector. ARL urges people to respond to the US Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) “Request for Information: Public Access to Peer-Reviewed Scholarly Publications, Data and Code Resulting from Federally Funded Research,” now due April 6.

ARL and its members are working on both addressing immediate needs and building the future. ARL is partnering with scholarly societies on sustainable business models that both increase access to information and account for the work societies do on behalf of disciplines, such as training the next generation of peer reviewers, advocating for science funding, and making research data FAIR (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable). Engagement with the society community becomes more urgent as in-person convenings are on hold for social distancing measures. We’re working with federal agencies and higher education associations to improve data practices in our institutions that will meet the open science mission of interoperable data. And we’re engaged in the public policy work in copyright, privacy, and platform regulation necessary to ensure equitable and barrier-free access to information for the duration.

To address immediate needs and ensure academic continuity, a group of copyright experts known as University Information Policy Officers (UIPO)—lawyer librarians who work in research libraries providing consultation on fair use and licensing issues for teaching and research—created Vendor Love in the Time of COVID-19, a “community-sourced list of video and other licensed content that library vendors are making available on free or modified terms during the COVID-19 outbreak.” The International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC), an informal group of nearly 200 library consortia internationally, began compiling a similar list.

In both cases, the UIPO and ICOLC, these networks did not stop at making lists, but made rapid assessments of the information climate and needs, and advocated to publishers and vendors to further open their paywalled content, relax restrictions on simultaneous users and interlibrary loan transactions, and be flexible with renewals and price increases. The UIPO created “Resources on Copyright & Emergency Remote Teaching & Research” and issued a Public Statement on Fair Use upon which our libraries are relying as they support a massive expansion in online instruction in their institutions. In the ensuing days, we’ve seen more publishers—including many university presses and scholarly societies—open their published materials and international governments and funding agencies calling for all data and publications related to COVID-19 to be freely available and machine, AI-accessible.

The scholarly publishing ecosystem is a complex mix of open, paywalled, commercial, nonprofit, and scholar-led knowledge. Librarians and library collectives have always been trusted experts and advocates for access to information, and in the past week we’ve seen established communities of practice and formal and informal networks come together quickly to support research and academic continuity in the immediate term. In the not so long term, we’re seeing in COVID-19 a demonstration of the urgent need for immediate, open, computable access to scientific information to accelerate global collaboration and findings for treatments, vaccines, and cures, and for what remains unknown today.