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Funding giant toughens support for open publishing

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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