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
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.