Taking Steps to Expand Access to High-Quality Scientific Publishing

The earliest peer-reviewed scientific journal, titled Philosophical Transactions, was published in the spring of 1665. Every few months, an issue would be manually printed, stamped with the Royal seal and then distributed to London’s elite libraries and researchers. Over time, the readers began wanting a say in the process, and the journal started incorporating feedback and edits on existing research.

By engaging colleagues in the editorial system, the journal’s peer review process kept work honest and rigorous, adhering to the highest standards of accuracy and relevance. And by sharing knowledge among scientists, it promoted collaboration and efficacy, encouraging scientists to use one another for ideas. Philosophical Transactions (now known as Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society) established the basis for peer-reviewed publishing and remains in publication today as the world’s oldest and longest running science journal.

Peer review continues to set the stage for questions we have answers to — and those that continue to escape us. But, operationally, this process looks very different. Today, journals move at a rapid pace, with a publishing cycle akin to a newspaper. Issues are circulated weekly, sometimes even daily, and underlying scientific data — the meat that really upholds a scientific conclusion — are not printed but uploaded onto online repositories.

But despite this digital footprint, the distribution of scientific research remains limited, restricted to those top universities and institutions that can afford journal subscription fees. This is particularly the case for researchers, students and leaders in emerging economies — many of whom may not be able to incur the $35 charge required of each article.

Fortunately, the digital age has brought with it a new set of opportunities, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is excited to share several steps we’re taking in pursuit of these.

We believe that innovating solutions, from helping the poorest to addressing emerging epidemics, goes hand-in-hand with innovating how we share these findings. Open access publishing — through which an article, after clearing the peer review process for editorial standards, is available free for anyone who wants to learn from it or build on its scientific findings — is one such model. Sharing knowledge more freely leads to more innovation and more impact. Open access is a movement of growing momentum, with support from many in the academic and research communities, including key funders, publishers and universities.

Here at the Gates Foundation, we strongly believe in the potential of the open access model. We have made a significant investment to ensure that all of our peer-reviewed published research is published on full open access terms. Effective January 1, 2017, support for open access publishing is built into every grant made by the Gates Foundation, across all program areas.

Of course, we’re aware that the broad implementation of open access — which will require new ways of financing publishing fees and some crucial changes to academic norms — is not as straightforward as it may seem.

That is why we’ve worked closely with others in the field to make it a viable option. We have invested in a new publishing service, Chronos, which easily connects our grantees and staff with the now 24,000 journals offering open access options. We also work with our grantee researchers to understand the barriers of publishing open access, and help cover the fees associated with these options.

Lastly, we are collaborating with publishers who are striving to make open access a sustainable business model. We are proud to announce a new partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which will allow publishing of Gates Foundation-funded research on open access terms in all of the AAAS’ journals, including Science, Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, Science Immunology and Science Robotics. This agreement follows the lead set by AAAS’ Science Advances journal, which publishes all material on full open access terms, and also charts a future course for continued collaboration around models that support open access publishing.

The Gates Foundation is taking these steps because we want to advance the conversation around open access publishing and ultimately find new ways of accelerating impact and saving lives. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to ensuring high-quality scientific knowledge is widely accessible, and we applaud efforts from Wellcome to former Vice President Joe Biden to the National Institutes of Health who share our commitment to open access and are pursuing additional approaches. In a field where there are no clear answers, experimentation and creative partnerships help advance the sector and accelerate the discovery of new solutions.

Ultimately, we do so because the possibilities are too great not to explore. Open access publishing of peer-reviewed research holds the potential for researchers from diverse backgrounds to come together and accelerate the research process — and in turn, leads to new ways of making people’s lives longer, healthier and more productive.

Leigh Morgan is chief operating officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.