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

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.

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

Dave Carr is a policy officer for the Wellcome Trust, and Robert Kiley is the head of digital services at the Wellcome Library

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.