Advances in science and health don’t happen in a vacuum. Scientists learn and build on each other’s work via research publications that describe their methods and findings. Such publications are an essential part of the scientific process. And a whole industry has grown to fill this need—for the (often hefty) price of a subscription. Sounds like basic capitalism, right?

Yet a majority of health and science research is funded by taxpayer dollars, so the argument says those articles are in part the property of the public. Even research backed by philanthropy is subsidized by tax dollars. How is it that private publishing companies can lock that research behind paywalls? And with so many pressing health and other issues facing people and the planet, can we really afford any barriers that make science advance more slowly?

These fundamental questions of fairness and public interest have been under scrutiny by governments and philanthropy for a decade, as a movement toward the open, free and immediate access of scientific publications has gained momentum. (Here’s a pretty good explainer on the topic from Open Society Foundations, a proponent of open access.)

Inside Philanthropy has been covering and commenting on this topic over the years, particularly regarding the private funders that have been working on their side of the fence to make published scientific research truly public. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and several European funders have been leading efforts to open up access to scientific publications, both through grants and by throwing their weight around as funders of research. Gates, in particular, threw down a gauntlet in 2017 by mandating immediate open access for research it funds.

And now, the largest private biomedical research institution in the U.S., the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), has made a decisive move in the push to make open access universal.

HHMI recently announced a new Open Access to Publications policy that will require all its laboratory heads to publish in a manner that makes their research articles freely available on the publication date under the CC BY Creative Commons Attribution License (a type of public copyright license that enables free distribution and sharing of published work). The HHMI policy is set to go into effect on January 1, 2022. It’s a significant shift for HHMI, where the previous policy required that lab heads make their work available online freely within 12 months of publication. By requiring immediate open access, HHMI researchers will be prohibited from publishing in prestigious journals such as Science, Cell and Nature (Nature has signaled that it will transition its journals to open access).

HHMI says the new policy aligns with the publishing principles of Plan S, an initiative pushing for open publishing of research, supported by an international consortium and set to take effect in January 2021. By aligning with Plan S, HHMI joins other open access champions in philanthropy that have adopted the same standards, including the Gates Foundation and Wellcome Trust. While private dollars don’t fund nearly as much research as U.S. government agencies, these are major players, with HHMI spending more than $750 million annually on basic biomedical research.

The move puts additional pressure on journals that still put papers behind paywalls, either permanently or for a limited amount of time. It also adds to a growing sense that open access is where the field is headed. For those in favor, this would be reason to celebrate, as more research, including work they’re paying for, would be available faster and to more scientists and doctors, including those in the Global South.

This move isn’t HHMI’s first effort in open access. It’s been working for about 20 years to make scientific publications more widely available. Back in 2011, for example, the funder partnered with Wellcome and the Max Planck Institute to create the journal eLife, an open access alternative to the venerable titles in the scientific journal business. But as we noted then, researchers are often reluctant to abandon some of the elite journals that use paywalls and carry a certain amount of prestige.

Governments in the U.S. and Europe, recognizing that publicly funded research should be publicly available, have begun taking steps to advance free access to scholarly research. Back in 2013, for example, the Obama administration issued a directive instructing the largest U.S. funding agencies to require public access to published articles, albeit with a 12-month delay.

In the pre-internet era, science journals were printed and distributed by mail and through libraries. But now that the internet has drastically cut those costs and enabled instant and broad dissemination of research, it is tough to see how open access won’t ultimately be achieved. Journal publishers themselves, perhaps seeing the writing on the walls, have been moving toward open access themselves, HHMI notes in announcing its new article policies.


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