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A new sustainability model: Major funders to support OA journal

27 June 2011 465 views 6 Comments
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”The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust announced today that they are to support a new, top-tier, open access journal for biomedical and life sciences research. The three organisations aim to establish a new journal that will attract and define the very best research publications from across these fields. All research published in the journal will make highly significant contributions that will extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge.” [Press Release]

It has been clear for some time that the slowness of the adoption of open access publication models by researchers is in large part down to terror that we have of stepping out of line and publishing in the ‘wrong’ journals. More radical approaches to publication will clearly lag even further behind while this inherent conservatism is dominant. Publishers like PLoS and BMC have tackled this head on by aiming to create prestigous journals but the top of the pile has remained the traditional clutch of Nature, Science, and Cell.

The incumbent publishers have simultaneously been able to sit back due to a lack of apparent demand from researchers. As the demand from funders has increased they have held back, complaining the business models to support Open Access publication are not clear. I’ve always found the ‘business model’ argument slightly specious. Sustainability is important but scholarly publishing has never really had a viable business model, it has had a subsidy from funders. Part of the problem has been the multiple layers and channels that subsidy has gone through but essentially funders, through indirect funding of academic libraries, have been footing the bill.

Some funders, and the Wellcome Trust has lead on this, have demanded that their researchers make their outputs accessible while simultaneously requiring publishers comply with their requirements on access and re-use rights. But progress has been slow, particularly in opening up what is perceived as the top of the market. Despite major inroads made by PLoS Biology and PLos Medicine those journals perceived as the most prestigious have remain resolutely closed.

Government funders are mostly constrained in their freedom to act but the Wellcome Trust, HHMI, and Max Planck Society have the independence to take the logical step. They are already paying for publication, why not actively support the formation of a new journal, properly open access, and at the same time lend the prestige that their names can bring?

This will send a very strong message, both to researchers and publishers, about what these funders value, and where they see value for money. It is difficult to imagine this will not lead to a seismic shift in the publishing landscape, at least from a political and financial perspective. I don’t believe this journal will be as technically radical as I would like, but it is unlikely it could be while achieving the aims that it has. I do hope the platform it is built on enables innovation both in terms of what is published and the process by which it is selected.

But in a sense that doesn’t matter. This venture can remain incredibly conservative and still have a huge impact on taking the research communication space forward. What it means is that three of the worlds key funders have made an unequivocal statement that they want to see Open Access, full open access on publication without restrictions on commercial use, or text-mining, or re-use in any form, across the whole of the publication spectrum. And if they don’t get it from the incumbent publishers they’re prepared to make it happen themselves.

Full Disclosure: I was present at a meeting at Janelia Farm in 2010 where the proposal to form a journal was discussed by members of the Wellcome, HHMI, and MPG communities.

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  • Anonymous

    Cameron, you write:

    “Government funders are mostly constrained in their freedom to act…”

    What is necessary to remove the constraint?

  • http://cameronneylon.net Cameron Neylon

    Difficult. The constraints are those of the political environment and government policy on one hand and the research community that the funders support on the other. Government funders in particular usually run peer review panels where members of the community rank proposals. This means that any policy or strategic direction the funders take is usually filtered by (or less charitably, stymied) by the panels who have their own agenda (generally supporting the status quo). In addition to these challenges in acting there is also a conservatism that is necessarily forced on funders by needing to retain the confidence of the research community. In the UK this is certainly near to breaking point for many funders. My own opinion is that funders have more freedom to act than they normally feel they do but there are real barriers to action. These also differ across national boundaries.

    To remove those boundaries would require the research community to be more radical than the funders. Unfortunately this is almost never the case and is exemplified by the fact that the funders taking action here are private (or at least independent) ones. The depressing thing is that government usually has a more radical agenda than both the research community and the funders.