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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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?