On February 4th, the Bulletin of the World Health Organization (WHO) published an editorial entitled, “Data sharing in public health emergencies: a call to researchers”. In the piece, the Bulletin and its leadership introduce an action plan for data sharing during the ongoing Zika fever outbreak in Central and South America, with hopes to expand to other diseases in the future.
The underlying motivation of the plan is to give researchers the opportunity to make their work public and citable while undergoing peer-review at the Bulletin – more specifically, within 24 hours after submission on the WHO’s Zika Open webpage. Should the work not survive review, authors are welcome to attempt publication elsewhere. However, in the event that authors are “unable to obtain acceptance with a suitable journal”, the WHO undertakes the responsibility of publishing the work as citable working papers – essentially providing a much-needed safety net in the rapidly evolving world of outbreak research. (Note: As of yesterday, over 30 other organizations – including other peer-reviewed journals – have agreed to make their Zika-related work open access. However, it appears that the Bulletin is currently the only outlet that explicitly offers a publication safety net for researchers.)
One of the primary reasons the WHO has chosen to implement this plan now is due to the data gap that currently exists with respect to the ongoing Zika fever outbreak. Official case counts have not been reported from the vast majority of impacted countries due to the preponderance of sub-clinical and mild infections, paired with resource-taxing and time-sensitive lab confirmation procedures for symptomatic patients. Moreover, given that Zika-related events were considered quite rare prior to 2015, historical epidemiological literature – including important resources such as epidemic curves and risk factor analyses – are sparse.
When traditional surveillance is weak – as it has been thus far with respect to Zika fever in Central and South America – digital disease detection (DDD) can aid in filling knowledge gaps. Given the sources that are typically used (e.g. electronic news and social media), digital disease data in its raw form is often “open” by default. This particular property of digital disease data addresses a critical issue that the WHO data-sharing plan cannot – on its own – resolve: the lag time between when data are created (or collected) and when a manuscript (and its data) is submitted for open, real-time publication.
Check back later today for a quick post on how the HealthMap team is using DDD to better understand the ongoing Zika fever outbreak, including a brief overview of a paper that we recently submitted to the Bulletin. (Update: Read more here.)