Wellcome Trust Joins ‘Academic Spring’ to Open Up Science
One of the world’s largest funders of science is to throw its weight behind a growing campaign to break the stranglehold of academic journals and allow all research papers to be shared online.
Nearly 9,000 researchers have already signed up to a boycott of journals that restrict free sharing as part of a campaign dubbed the “academic spring” by supporters due to its potential for revolutionising the spread of knowledge.
But the intervention of the Wellcome Trust, the largest non-governmental funder of medical research after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is likely to galvanise the movement by forcing academics it funds to publish in open online journals.
Sir Mark Walport, the director of Wellcome Trust, said that his organisation is in the final stages of launching a high calibre scientific journal called eLife that would compete directly with top-tier publications such as Nature and Science, seen by scientists as the premier locations for publishing. Unlike traditional journals, however, which cost British universities hundreds of millions of pounds a year to access, articles in eLife will be free to view on the web as soon as they are published.
He also said that the Wellcome Trust, which spends more than £600m on scientific research a year, would soon adopt a more robust approach with the scientists it funds, to ensure that results are freely available to the public within six months of first publication.
Researchers who do not make their work open access in line with the Trust’s policy could be sanctioned in future grant applications to the charity.
Walport, who is a fellow of the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific academy, said the results of public and charity-funded scientific research should be freely available to anyone who wants to read it, for whatever purpose they need it. His comments echo growing concerns from scientists who baulk at the rising costs of academic journals, particularly in a time of shrinking university budgets.
The majority of the world’s scientific research, estimated at around 1.5m new articles each year, is published in journals owned by a small number of large publishing companies including Elsevier, Springer and Wiley. Scientists submit manuscripts to the journals, which are sent out for peer review before publication. The work is then available to other researchers by subscription, usually through their libraries.
Publishers of the academic journals, which can cost universities up to €20,000 (£16,500) a year each to access, argue the price is necessary to sustain a high-quality peer review process.
A spokesperson for Elsevier said the company was open to any “mechanism or business model, as long as they are sustainable and maintain or improve existing levels of quality control”.
He added that the company had been working on open access initiatives with funding bodies. “There has been a constructive collaboration as we’ve worked with the Wellcome Trust to build support and participation among authors … At the same time, we will also remain committed to the subscription model. We want to be able to offer our customers choice, and we see that, in addition to new models the subscription model remains very much in demand.”
But the government has also signalled its support for open access. At the launch of the government’s innovation strategy in December, David Willetts, minister for universities and science, said he aspired to have all government-funded research published in the public domain.
“We want to move to open access, but in a way that ensures that peer review and publishing continues as a function. It needs to be paid for somehow.”
Science funders say this is not the problem. “I think publishing is a cost of research in the same way as buying a centrifuge is a cost of research,” said Walport. “We have to maximise the public benefit of the research that we publish and we only do that by distribution.”
According to David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, British universities spend around £200m a year on subscriptions to electronic databases and journals, which is around 10% of the block grants the institutions receive from government. The exact prices paid by university libraries are covered by confidentiality clauses with publishers but Prosser said that many of Britain’s big universities “are spending, with some of our largest publishers, more than £1m a year each”.
The rising costs of journal subscriptions have led many scientists around the world to question the business models of the publishers, which can make profit margins of more than 35% through selling access to the results of publicly-funded research. Proponents for open access in science argue that research papers should be freely available to anyone who wants to read them, with the publication costs borne by the authors of the work, perhaps as part of the research grant that pays for their work.