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Science journals end open-access trial with Gates Foundation

Pilot experiment has seen 26 papers published under open-access terms so far and should yield a report by the end of the year.

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The publisher of Science last month ended a pilot partnership that allowed open-access (OA) publishing for researchers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The trial was an effort to accommodate a policy clash between the Gates Foundation, which has enforced strict OA demands since 2017, and publishers that run subscription journals which don’t comply with those terms. So far, 26 papers in Science and four sister subscription journals have been published under the 18-month experiment, and more may appear, says Meagan Phelan, a spokesperson for Science's publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC.

Neither Gates nor AAAS commented on why the deal ended, but Phelan says the pilot was "planned for a duration that would allow both organizations to closely explore what researchers need and value from journal publications and related services". “We are reviewing the outcomes of our collaboration and remain open to future partnerships,” she adds. The two organizations expect to publish a report on their trial by the end of this year, including results from an open-access survey conducted of Gates-funded authors.

Under the contract, the Gates Foundation paid the AAAS a lump sum of around US$100,000 for a trial first year, when 16 papers appeared. The two organizations then extended their partnership for another six months, and continued their contract on “similar terms”, but have agreed to keep the extra amount paid confidential, says Bryan Callahan, an external-relations officer at the Gates Foundation.

Meanwhile, two other influential journals, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), quietly changed their policies last year to offer a permanent OA publishing route for Gates grant holders. And while Nature did not make a specific agreement with funders, it has published some papers under OA terms, including two Gates-funded papers this year. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its journal team and of its publisher, Springer Nature.)

Open-access clash

The Gates Foundation, based in Seattle, Washington, is a global health charity that spent $4.6 billion in 2016, much of it allocated to research. Each year, more than 2,000 papers are published from its funded projects. The Foundation stipulates that these papers, and their data, must be made open.

It’s not the only research funder to have such rules, but its policy is stricter than most, because it demands that papers are made free to read immediately on publication, rather than permitting a six-month delay as some subscription journals require. And the papers must not only be free to read, but also be posted under a ‘CC-BY’ licence that allows their contents to be reused without restrictions, for example through republication, even for commercial purposes. (The CC refers to Creative Commons, a non-profit organization based in Mountain View, California, that invented the licence; BY indicates that anyone reusing the article must credit the author of the original work.)

When the Gates policy came into force at the beginning of 2017, it clashed with the rules of subscription journals including Nature, Science, NEJM and PNAS, meaning that researchers could not publish Gates-funded work in these journals.

In February that year, however, the AAAS and Gates announced their partnership. On 1 March, NEJM changed its own policy. The subscription medical journal generally makes articles free to read on its website six months after publication, but it agreed to make Gates-funded articles free to read immediately, says Jennifer Zeiss, communications and media-relations manager for the NEJM Group. It also agreed to simultaneously make available a CC-BY licensed ‘author final version’ of the paper, which includes revisions made after peer review but lacks final NEJM editing. These appear online in the PubMed Central database. “At present time, NEJM does not have this arrangement with other funders,” Zeiss says.

And in September 2017, the subscription journal PNAS — which also already makes papers free to read on its site six months after publication — began offering an OA option under a restrictive licence that does not permit commercial reuse or republication. The journal also decided to offer a liberal CC-BY licence for authors whose funders mandate it, a spokesperson says.

Flexible policy

Nature does not have a specific OA policy for Gates grant holders, but the issue is still under discussion, and the journal does occasionally publish papers, which can include those with Gates funding, under a CC licence, says a spokesperson for Nature Research, the portfolio of journals that includes Nature. The journal has published more than 30 CC-BY OA papers since 2017, according to an analysis by Nature’s news team. Two of those papers are by Gates-funded researchers. "I just asked for open-access terms and was delighted to hear that this would be possible," says Simon Hay, a Gates-funded researcher who is director of geospatial science at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, Washington, and who co-authored both the papers.

In 2007, Nature introduced a CC licence for any paper reporting the reference sequence of an organism’s genome; its current policy for making papers open access “includes, but is not limited to, articles reporting experimental standards, white papers presenting the road map of large community initiatives, and articles describing performance of software tools. Other exceptional papers may also be published under a Creative Commons licence from time to time, at the editor’s discretion and irrespective of their funding," the spokesperson says.

Spokespeople for Nature and Science added that the journals both also make dozens of papers free to read each year, although this kind of access does not satisfy Gates' CC-BY demands.

Hay says it's a pity that the Gates-AAAS pilot is over for now, but he expects that negotiations will be ongoing. But other scientists who advocate for open-access say they are glad the pilot is discontinued because of its cost. "The agreement was setting a bad example of showing that everything can be had if you just throw enough money at it, while many researchers, institutions and countries are struggling to provide immediate open access at current prices," said Jeroen Bosman and Bianca Kramer, two librarians and scholarly-communication researchers at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, in an e-mail to Nature.

Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project and the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication in Cambridge, Massachusetts, characterizes the AAAS pilot as a compromise whereby Gates paid the publisher a “prestige tax” for the specific OA publishing terms it wanted.

“To me, the deal was unnecessary and undesirable. A wide range of high-quality journals were already compatible with the Gates publishing terms. If Gates had refused to pay the AAAS prestige tax, it would not have lost grant applications from first-rate researchers,” Suber says. “I'm glad to see it come to an end.”

"I think Gates are right to stipulate immediate OA as a condition of funding especially in an area of such importance to global public health," says Stephen Curry, a structural biologist and OA advocate at Imperial College London. For now, other funders haven't followed the Gates Foundation's stringent terms, he notes.

But a push for immediate OA may be coming: the European Commission's open-access envoy Robert-Jan Smits said on 11 July at the Euroscience Open Forum in Toulouse, France, that he hopes soon to announce an initiative called 'Plan S', under which many funding agencies in Europe will require researchers to publish only in open-access journals and make papers immediately free to read.

Nature 559, 311-312 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05729-2
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