After the Gates Foundation Open Access Policy

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has demonstrated the power of philanthropy to reshape the world. Among the many instances, an earlier one touching my own area of work, which involves research on public access to research and scholarship, has been the PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, which “is the first open-access journal devoted to the world’s most neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) …affecting the world’s forgotten people,” as the journal describes itself. The launch of the journal was funded by the Gates Foundation. The pointedness of its stance matters. The Foundation enabled a new and open journal that changes the field of research.

This is high-impact philanthropy. Its singular-minded agenda is not always welcomed by everyone. There’s been a backlash against some of the Foundation’s education “experiments,” most notably from Anthony Cody in his book The Educator and the Oligarch. And while I have yet to be party to any Gates’ funding (in the interests of full disclosure), I can say that a second venture in scholarly communication demonstrates well enough the upside and downside of big philanthropy.

On November 21, 2014, the Gates Foundation announced an Open Access Policy for the research that it sponsors. As of January 1st, 2015, any publications resulting from research funded by Gates must be made “open access” and placed under a Creative Commons license (CC by 4.0).

What is path-breaking to this policy, however, is its “two-year transition period,” in which “publishers will be permitted to apply up to a 12 month embargo period on the accessibility of the publication and its underlying data sets.” Then, “this embargo period will no longer be allowed after January 1, 2017.”

The Gates Foundation is declaring that this concept of publishing embargoes – intended to protect journal subscriptions – is no more than a transitional stage on the road to a state when research and its underlying data “will be accessible and open immediately.” The Foundation has crossed a line. It is treating open access not as a concession subject to crippling terms, but as the natural state of research. It is “how we work,” the Foundation declares on its website.

It is easy to imagine that the Gates Foundation policy will come to influence many open access policies, such as that of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which has had a 12-month embargo since 2008 with no reference to it ending. It will send a further signal to the publishers that the time of open access is now. Only this is where the potential downside comes in.

The Gates Policy states clearly that the Foundation “will pay necessary fees,” with a quick reference to “reasonable fees” in the next sentence. This, too, will speed the publishers’ plow, quick as they have been to charge fees that range widely, from $8 to $3,900, according to a recent study by David Solomon and Bo-Christer Björk, undermining any sense of this involving what might be necessary and reasonable. But what then of access to the research and scholarship that is not so funded?

The Foundation may well have created the “strongest policy on open access research,” as the Nature NewsBlog headline reads. But if it reinforces the divide between the well-funded and other researchers and scholars, then I’m afraid that it leaves the economy of publishing weakened.

Encouraging authors to pay for open access, article by article, journal by journal, is a step backward. What is needed – as I have been stressing for some time now – is for the whole scholarly publishing system to move, as a whole, to being “accessible and open immediately.”

There is already enough money on the table for that shift. It is wrapped up in what is at least a ten-billion-dollar subscription industry, which has kept research exclusive and limited its circulation even among researchers. That money could fund a potentially less-expensive model, in which a portion of this ten billion is redirected to paying article processing fees for all peer-reviewed and published research (and not just the research of those holding sufficiently generous grants).

Coordinating such a move from subscription to open access economy is going to be no small step. The research libraries, which have been writing the checks, one-by-one, vendor by vendor, now need to find a way of collectively redirecting their budgets toward covering the necessary and reasonable costs of well-run and rigorous journals available to all researchers and scholars. Here is where the work is now needed, if I may, by far-sighted foundations working with both library and scholarly associations to set a new course for the open and public circulation of knowledge.

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