Open access to science helps us all

The Wellcome Trust has been praised for its decision to compel research it funds to be freely availa

J. Craig Venter smiles in front of a map of the human genome.
J. Craig Venter smiles in front of a map of the human genome. The project was the impetus for Open Access. Credit: Getty

Every year, governments and charities invest billions of pounds supporting scientific research with the aim of advancing discovery and its application for economic and societal benefit. The primary mechanism through which scientists disseminate the results of this research is through publication in peer-reviewed journals, with access to this content typically being managed though library subscriptions. However, in recent years there has been a growing recognition that the traditional subscription-based access models are not serving the best interests of the research community, and a growing movement to support open-access publishing – in which research papers are freely available to all at the point of use. To cover publication costs, open access journals typically levy an up-front payment, which is usually met by the research funder.

As a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health, the Wellcome Trust is dedicated to ensuring that the outputs of the research we fund are made widely available in a manner that maximises the resulting health benefit.

Our support for open access publishing was a natural progression of our involvement in the international Human Genome Project during the 1990s and early 2000s, where the decision to place the human genetic sequence in the public domain immediately as it was generated helped to ensure this key research resource could be used by scientists the world over. A recent study estimated that a $3.8 billion investment in the project had achieved an economic impact worth $796 billion, a clear indication of the power of open access to scientific information. 

SME’s also benefit from unrestricted access to research findings. A study published in Nature Biotechnology laments the poor access biotech companies have to the published literature. In one case, a company suffered a six-month setback to a drug development programme because a paper was missed in a subscription journal. Other research (pdf) has shown how companies could benefit from reduced costs and shortened development cycles by having greater access to UK research outputs, which, in turn would generate around £100m worth of economic activity for the UK economy.

Since 2005, the Wellcome Trust has required that research papers that arise through the research we support be made freely available as soon as possible, and in any event within six months of publication. We view the cost of dissemination as an integral part of funding research, and provide dedicated funds to the institutions we support for the payment of author fees associated with open access publication.

Since we first established our policy, there have been many encouraging developments. Many funders now explicitly require published outputs to be made freely available. We have seen the rapid growth of fully open access publishers, including the Public Library of Science and Biomed Central.  And, many existing publishers now offer open access options alongside subscriptions.

But whilst the move towards open access is gathering pace, there is still a long way to go. At present, only around 55 per cent of research papers we support comply with our policy. For this reason, we have recently decided to strengthen the manner in which we enforce our policy.  We will also ensure that where we pay an open access fee, the content is freely available for all types of re-use (including commercial re-use). This is in line with a recent draft policy published by the UK Research Councils, which we strongly support.

We are also working in partnership with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society to develop eLife, a new top-tier and fully open access online-only journal, which we will launch later this year. eLife will make ground-breaking research freely available to all, and develop cutting–edge approaches and tools to enhance accessibility and use of on-line, open access content. We hope that in doing so it will spark change in the wider publishing sector and accelerate the transition towards a world where open access is the norm.

We believe that this is a pivotal moment in the open access debate, and political will is growing in the UK and internationally. Here, the UK Government has highlighted (pdf) the potential of open data to stimulate innovation and economic growth. Access to research publications has been recognised as a key element in this, and the Finch Group, which was established by David Willets to look at ways to enhance access to published scientific information, will report in the Summer. Meanwhile, in the US, the failure of the Research Works Act – which sought to row back the current policy of the US National Institutes of Health to require that publicly-funded research articles be made freely available – demonstrated that the current course towards open access is now irreversible.

We all have a fundamental obligation to ensure that scientific research which is funded by taxpayers and through charitable funding delivers the greatest possible return to society, and open access publication is key to achieving this goal. We therefore call on all those involved in the supporting science and innovation to help make open access a reality.