From mandates to platforms: Have funders lost patience with publishers?

The Wellcome Trust, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the European Commission have a lot in common. Not only do they fund science worldwide, but they now provide—or are developing—an open publishing platform to guarantee subscription-free access to the research they support. Have they finally lost patience with the pace of OA? Or, is it a natural evolution for scholarly communications?

A proprietary publishing platform might seem a natural progression for a UK-based funder keen to accelerate access to their research. But with other funders jumping on the bandwagon, things begin to get a little more interesting for publishers.

In October 2016, Wellcome launched their own publishing platform, Wellcome Open Research—“a new way for Wellcome-funded researchers to rapidly publish any results they think are worth sharing.”  This just one month after Wellcome had already ratcheted up the pressure on publishers with their Open Access Policy with mandates that include CC-BY licenses and immediate Pub-Med Central deposits for all Wellcome-funded research articles.

A proprietary publishing platform might seem a natural progression for a UK-based funder keen to accelerate access to their research. But with other funders jumping on the bandwagon, things begin to get a little more interesting for publishers.

For example, hot on the heels of their 2016 transition to full Open Access requirements, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced Gates Open Research—“A platform for rapid author-led publication and open peer review of research funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” with the service due to launch in fall 2017.

Then, after a closed meeting of the Open Science Policy Platform in March 2017, word spread of European Commission plans to launch some kind of Open Access endeavor. Their plan for a new repository with functionality that includes open peer review has now been confirmed. This supports the powerful commitment behind Horizon 2020, the EU research and innovation program, to move all funded research to full Open Access.

Funder and researcher concerns about the speed of publication, use of embargoes, and cost of APCs are well documented. They are seen to slow the development of science to solve ‘big’ problems and as a barrier to researchers in developing countries who cannot afford to access the content or to publish in more prestigious journals. By publishing on their own platforms, funders can release research articles almost immediately and make them openly accessible to all. With APCs set by commercial publishers ranging from $1200-$5200 per article, funders can tackle high fees head-on. Wellcome Open Research OA fees, for example, are much lower—between $135 and $900 per article.

This more assertive stance from funders will inevitably impact publisher income in the longer term. Add together the funding awarded between 2015 and 2016 by Wellcome Trust (£822 million), the Gates Foundation ($4.2 billion), and Horizon 2020 (€10 billion), and you have a substantial chunk of the global research budget with a fully compliant—and cheaper—way to publish findings.

Another more recent development is the announcement in June that UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health will launch UCL Child Health Open Research by the end of 2017. They are the first institute to launch a publishing platform of this type that will accept all types of research output. They intend to support reproducibility and transparency, and provide an outlet for niche research that might not be published in other journals. Anyone affiliated with the Institute and other UCL researchers in field of child health will be eligible to publish.

So, what does this mean for traditional STM publishers? Can funder-and-institute owned-and-operated publishing platforms co-exist with the wider industry? Is it still “business as usual” along the Open Access road? Or, will the scholarly communications sector eventually be priced out?

Here are eight reasons why this might not necessarily be so…

  1. These platforms are optional. There are a huge number of journals whose publishers are already compliant. More will follow.
  2. Deals such as the one between The Gates Foundation and the AAAS will continue to be struck.
  3. There is greater understanding and transparency around costs of APCs (UCD/Mellon Pay-it-forward project), with evolving discounts and offsetting deals.
  4. Programs under the Research4Life banner providing free or low cost access have strong industry support.
  5. Publishers continue to look for economies in their workflow without compromising quality (CCC’s own RightsLink for Open Access helps with automating and tracking APC funding requests).
  6. Researchers may still choose to publish in high-quality and highly discoverable scholarly journals published by traditional publishers.
  7. Mergers and acquisitions enable companies to accelerate their own capabilities and services.
  8. Technical and licensing issues around the sharing and use of underlying data sets are evolving to meet the needs of researchers.

There is no doubt the industry will want to speed up innovation and efficiency in response to these new initiatives. Switching legacy infrastructure and business models doesn’t happen overnight, and indeed new OA models periodically emerge with the realization that one approach does not work for all. But positive collaboration and discussion continue behind the scenes between researchers, publishers, institutions, and funders to manage this transition.

As industry analyst David Worlock points out, there are encouraging signs that STM publishing is adapting to rebuild and refocus on a service economy. This trend of funder-run publishing platforms is perhaps just part of the continuing evolution of scholarly communications.

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Author: Suzanne Kavanagh

Suzanne Kavanagh is a publishing consultant focusing on strategy, management, and marketing. She has nearly 25 years’ experience, most recently as Director of Marketing and Membership Services at ALPSP.
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