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Wellcome and Gates join bold European open-access plan

The headquarters of the Wellcome Trust in London

The Wellcome Trust is the first funder to detail how it intends to implement Plan S. Credit: Thomas S.G. Farnetti/Wellcome Trust

Two of the world’s largest biomedical research funders have backed a plan to make all papers resulting from work they fund open access on publication by 2020.

On 5 November, the London-based Wellcome Trust and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, announced they were both endorsing ‘Plan S’, adding their weight to an initiative already backed by 13 research funders across Europe since its launch in September. The plan was spearheaded by Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission’s special envoy on open access.

The Wellcome Trust, which gave out £1.1 billion (US$1.4 billion) in grants in 2016–17, is also the first funder to detail how it intends to implement Plan S. Its approach suggests that journals may not need to switch wholesale to open-access (OA) models by 2020 to be compliant with Plan S — if the initiative’s other backers decide on a similar line.

The biomedical charity already has an OA policy, but in some cases it allows an embargo of up to six months after publication before papers have to be made free to read. The organization says that by 1 January 2020, it will ban all such embargoes.

Wellcome-funded work will not be able to appear in Nature, Science and other influential subscription journals unless these publications permit Wellcome-funded papers to be published under OA terms (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its publisher, Springer Nature).

Researchers that the charity funds could still publish in subscription journals, says Robert Kiley, Wellcome’s head of open research. But only if those journals agree that the authors can immediately deposit their accepted manuscript in the PubMed Central repository under a liberal publishing licence. Some publishers, such as the Royal Society in London, already allow this.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington

The Gates Foundation said it would update its policy to comply with Plan S over the next 12 months. Credit: Kristoffer Tripplaar/Alamy

Plan S also states that scientists can’t publish in ‘hybrid’ journals, which collect subscriptions and charge for some papers to be made OA. Wellcome says that it will stop paying OA fees for articles published in hybrid journals. But it will not bar papers resulting from research it has funded from hybrid journals if the authors can find another way to pay, or if a journal agrees to let authors also post their accepted manuscripts elsewhere at the time of publication under OA terms.

Kiley adds that until 2022, Wellcome will also support hybrid journals if their publishers have made ‘transformative OA agreements’ and are en route to becoming OA. These might include, for instance, ‘read and publish’ deals in which an institution’s subscription fees also cover the costs of their researchers publishing openly in a hybrid journal.

Essentially, this follows the spirit of statement by the backers of Plan S that some hybrid-journal publishing would be allowed for a transitional time.

Meanwhile, the Gates Foundation, which already demands immediate OA for the papers that result from the research it funds, said it would update its policy to comply with Plan S over the next 12 months. The initiative’s hybrid-journal component is the only part not covered under Gates’ current policy, a spokesperson says.

Taken as a whole, the revised policies put more pressure on non-OA journals to change the way they operate, says Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project and the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I applaud Wellcome and Gates for taking this step,” he says, adding that Harvard University has already decided not to pay open-access fees for publishing in hybrid journals.

The Gates Foundation, which spent $4.7 billion in 2017, much of it on science, has been influential in changing the policies of subscription journals by demanding research they fund is made OA on publication.

Since 2017, when the foundation began enforcing its policy, journals including the New England Journal of Medicine and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have been offering a permanent OA publishing route for the charity’s grant holders. The Gates Foundation also arranged a pilot partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington DC, which publishes Science, under which around 25 papers were published under OA terms. That trial ended in June.

The Wellcome Trust’s new OA policy also says that when there may be a significant public-health benefit to sharing preprints widely — such as during a disease outbreak — the work it funds must be published before peer review under a liberal licence.

The 13 other funders that support Plan S are expected to launch a public consultation on their implementation ideas at the end of November, according to Smits.

STM, a global trade association for academic and professional publishers, says that it welcomes the efforts of orgainizations such as the Wellcome Trust and Gates Foundation to work towards expanding access to peer-reviewed scientific works to maximize their value and reuse. “We continue to urge funders and institutions to consider all effective methods for supporting a successful transition to open access,” a spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Springer Nature said: “Like the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation, Springer Nature supports the intention to move faster towards a system where publicly-funded research is openly available at the point of publication.”



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