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Powerful US research funder unveils strict open-access policy

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is the second major US funder to mandate that the research it pays for must be free to read on publication.

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The spines of a set of learned journals.

Scholarly journals are under pressure to become more freely accessible.Credit: Getty

One of the world’s richest biomedical research organizations, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), announced on 1 October that it will require scientists it funds to make papers open access (OA) as soon as they are published — a change to its current policy, which allows a delay of up to one year before results must be free to read.

The non-profit organization, based in Chevy Chase, Maryland, is only the second US funder to insist on immediate open access, after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. As part of the policy change, HHMI has joined the coalition of funders and organizations behind Plan S, a European-led initiative that is pushing for research to be immediately accessible on publication, and is supported by national research agencies and charitable organizations such as the Wellcome Trust and the Gates foundation. The HHMI’s shift is a boost to Plan S, and having more US-based funders on board will help build momentum towards open access, says Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project and the Harvard Office for Scholarly Communication in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The HHMI spent US$763 million on biomedical research in 2019 and supports around 4,750 researchers, producing around 2,500 papers a year. Its new policy states that from 2022, HHMI scientists must either publish papers OA or deposit their accepted manuscripts in a repository openly under a liberal publishing licence.

It also will not pay for OA publication fees in ‘hybrid’ journals that make some papers open and keep others behind paywalls, unless they have committed to transitioning to an OA business model “on a timeline acceptable to HHMI”. This policy mirrors that of Plan S, where funders say they will pay OA publication fees only for hybrid journals that have signed so-called transformative contract agreements, or are classed as transformative journals because they have committed to increase their volume of OA content. Nature’s publisher, Springer Nature, has said that the journal will provide an OA route from 2021 and will meet Plan S requirements. (Nature is editorially independent of its publisher.)

The HHMI is offering a one-year grace period — until 2023 — for publishing in hybrid journals that are run not-for-profit by scientific societies.

Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, doesn’t yet offer OA publishing of the kind that would satisfy HHMI and Plan S. Although authors can post their accepted manuscripts in personal or institutional repositories on publication, AAAS doesn’t permit them to use the liberal ‘CC-BY’ publishing license, which would meet Plan S and HHMI policies. But the AAAS says it is considering this. Plan S funders announced this year that authors will retain the rights to do this themselves no matter what a journal decides, but it’s not yet clear whether subscription journals will approve manuscripts submitted to them under those terms.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has mandated immediate OA for its papers since 2017, but it hadn’t yet taken a position on hybrid journals. That changed in mid-September when it updated its policy with the intention of following Plan S. Its website now states that it will pay publishing fees only for OA journals. But a spokesperson told Nature that the foundation is “open to exploring options” to pay publishing fees in hybrid journals that are covered by transformational arrangements. It will also insist on the same rights-retention policy as Plan S for posting manuscripts openly online.

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 02 October 2020: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that subscription journals published by non-profit scholarly societies will be exempt from the HHMI’s new policy for one year. In fact, this exemption applies to hybrid journals, and HHMI scientists would not be able to publish in Science, unless that journal’s policies change. AAAS’s policy on open-access publishing has also been clarified.

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