Mar 24, 2017

Alert: Powerful Charities Launching War to Endorse Open Access


The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (the Foundation) Open Access Policy, first declared on January 1, 2015, has become a potentially significant game-changer in the way scientific research is shared. The Foundation is the world’s largest charitable supporter of scientific research (contributing $4+ billion a year). In its efforts to promote free access and encourage collaboration within the scientific community, the Foundation created its Open Access Policy. This policy had a two-year transition period in which journals could restrict access to published research funded by the Foundation. That transition period has now expired, which means, journals must FREELY grant access to any Foundation-supported research publications. The Foundation also covers all costs to have any works sponsored by it published in the Wellcome Trust data repository, Figshare.

How does the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Open Access Policy impact your research?

If you receive funding from the Foundation, you may no longer be able to submit your works to many high-impact journals because they are subscription-based services. This restriction might make you nervous given how the research community highly values impact factor and prestigious journal publications. However, don’t panic yet!

The Foundation’s Open Access Policy may force journals to reconsider their business models. Journals pride themselves on high-quality works that would interest their readers. Their prestige is based on their editors’ abilities to screen the thousands of submissions they receive and cull the best of the best. But if the “best” are sponsored by the Foundation, then subscription-based journals would be incapable of publishing those works. This restriction would certainly cast doubt on a journal’s claims that it publishes the most cutting-edge research.

Given the Foundation’s reputation and influence on charities and its collaboration with the world’s second largest medical research supporter, Wellcome Trust, what if other scientific research supporters follow suit and adopt an open access policy? This might mean the end of subscription journals!

We don’t know whether journals will eventually succumb to these charities’ pressures, but one thing is clear to us: these charities (and perhaps others) will not back down. Groups like the Foundation and Wellcome Trust are only beginning to ramp up their war against controlled access to science. Why do these charities care?

By its very nature, science is an investigative field that requires large amounts of data and collaboration. Cost should not be a requisite barrier in this process.

In lieu of traditional publications, what alternatives are charities endorsing?

In addition to supporting open access repositories and journals, several charitable and for-profit organizations are experimenting with other publication schemes. The following are a few examples.

  • The Foundation, for example, is testing the boundaries further by offering Science $100,000 to make any Foundation-sponsored published research freely accessible. If this project proves successful, this charity is likely to extend its offer to other journals.
  • Some publishing houses are charging the authors. This method grants readers free access while costing authors nothing since their sponsors (who are normally governmental entities or charitable foundations) would be footing the bill.
  • Pre-print (pre-publication) databases like arXiv (for physicists) and bio Rxiv (for biomedical research) also exist. Their purpose is to encourage open and blind peer review within the community and data sharing. While their submissions process requires refinement to reduce any reviewer bias, these types of arrangements can help authors like you to strengthen your research and edit your manuscript before actual publication. Moreover, by participating in pre-print groups, your studies would have received full credit and recognition from your peers long before it was formally published. One example of a charity that supports pre-printing is the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub. In February 2017, it announced it would sponsor local researchers on the condition that the findings become available as preprints.

For additional reading on the Open Access movement and resources: