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Funding giant toughens support for open publishing

One of the world’s biggest science funding bodies will strengthen its support for free online publishing by sanctioning errant…

The Wellcome Trust building in Camden, London.

One of the world’s biggest science funding bodies will strengthen its support for free online publishing by sanctioning errant academics who take its grants but publish in subscriber-only journals.

The Wellcome Trust, Britain’s largest non-governmental funding body for medical research and the world’s second largest after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has declared it will get tough on grant recipients, to ensure the results of their research are freely available to everyone.

Those who defy the Trust’s policy, which mandates that electronic copies of articles be available “as soon as possible and in any event within six months of the journal publisher’s official date of final publication”, could find their breach jeopardises future grant applications to the charity, Sir Mark Walport, the director of Wellcome Trust, has said.

In a paper presented last year, Robert Kiley, the head of digital services at the trust, revealed that researchers complied with the mandate only about 50% of the time.

In the past three months, more than 9,000 researchers, including hundreds of Australian academics, have put their names to a boycott of Elsevier, one of the world’s leading publishers of academic journals, over the company’s efforts to restrict free access to taxpayer-funded research.

Elsevier owns more than 2,000 titles and, in 2010, reaped a profit of £724m on revenues of £2bn, for an operating profit margin of 36%.

In February the company dropped its support for a US bill that was designed to block access to vast amounts of academic research, but only when it appeared the fallout was becoming too great to contain.

Elsevier and other publishers, which charge libraries more than $20,000 a year to subscribe to some journals, argue the cost is needed to cover peer review through to distribution and database maintenance.

Although Wellcome Trust has not given support to the boycott against Elsevier, its comments have given fresh impetus to the push for open access publishing, dubbed the “academic spring” by many supporters.

Last June the funding body, which spends more than £600 million a year on research, announced that it would launch a world-class open access journal called eLife in a bid to compete with top-tier subscriber journals such as Nature and Science, regarded by scientists as the most prestigious places to be published.

The journal, to be funded with help from the Max Planck Society in Germany and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US, is in final stages of preparation.

Danny Kingsley, the Australian National University’s manager of scholarly communications and e-publishing, said that she was “glad that Wellcome is doing something about following up its mandate. They introduced their mandate in October 2005. I was shocked to find out that the compliance rate was only about 50% towards the end of last year. This indicates that the mandate is only half effective.

“Having some sort of repercussion if people do not comply with the mandate is a very big step in the right direction,” said Dr Kingsley, who also coordinates ANU’s Digital Collections database, a free online repository of academic research."

But she said that some academics who had complied with the trust’s free access policy, and incurred a processing fee to publish their work in open journals, had struggled to get the trust to reimburse that cost, sometimes as much as $US2500 per article.

At least one researcher she knew had complained of spending long periods filling out paperwork for reimbursement, and waiting for weeks, occasionally months, to be paid.

“So the system is less than ideal in practicality. Who knows, that may have been why people haven’t been complying?” she said.

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8 Comments sorted by

  1. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    This is very good, but in this Wellcome is following the US National Institutes for Health.

    The new development is Wellcome's plan to establish a new open access online journal for biomedical and life sciences research, eLife. Partners in eLife are the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a US philanthropy, and the Max Planck Society, which is funded by German federal and state governments.

    If eLife establishes a reputation similar to Nature it would be a new model for open access online journals which might be a strong alternative to the current print-pdf-paywall journals.

  2. Monica Barratt

    NHMRC Post-Doc Research Fellow, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW Australia

    This is really welcome but what I've found is that hard sciences and computer sciences seem to be in the lead in creating/using truly open access journals (that is, free to publish and free to access).

    I would love to have an equivalent of eLife in my field of the social and policy aspects of drug use. We need to catch up with other disciplines. Our research shouldn't just be read by the academy.

    1. Monica Barratt

      NHMRC Post-Doc Research Fellow, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Thanks Gavin, I might try these ideas! I've also brought it up with a professor in UK who is interested so we will talk about it at our conference next month. Hopefully we can make it happen.

  3. Antonio Manuel Santos Cristovao

    logged in via Facebook

    The also payed with public money should be widely available. I hope this change soon with eLife

  4. Mathew Carter

    PhD Candidate at University of Western Australia

    Deprivation of the benefits of research dissemination impacts most on the least advantaged in the world. Limiting access to research publications to those able to afford large fees stymies the growth of knowledge and understanding. It is inappropriate that publicly funded academics are beholden to vastly profitable transnationals. eLife is an exciting precedent potentially hugely beneficial to wider society in the long term.

    It's great to see the NHMRC going down this path as well.

    Thanks for the 'big picture' article, Justin.

    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Mathew Carter

      I agree about the National Health and Medical Research Council. In contrast the retiring head of the Australian Research Council Council Margaret Sheil has adopted a passive position because, she claims, open access publication is not as important in the humanities and social sciences. Hopefully the new head of the ARC will bring it up to speed.

  5. Phil Shields

    Nursing PhD candidate (Informatics) and ex-ambo

    This is good news, the locking up of information by big publishers only disrupts the dissemination of information. This always raises my quills. While they are up, another gripe I have is academics who are publicly funded, discover something novel and start up a company. This locks up information as well.