A Wellcome development?

29 June, 2012

The Wellcome Trust has announced that it will be strengthening the manner in which it enforces its open access policy. With immediate effect, failure to comply with the policy, which since 2006 has required that all research papers funded by the Trust should be made available through UK PubMed Central, could result in final grant payments being withheld and non-compliant papers discounted in future grant applications.

Five years on from the inception of its policy, the Trust has revealed that only 55% of papers that acknowledge Wellcome Trust funding are complying with its policy. To improve on this situation, PIs will now be required to provide an assurance that they are in compliance before their final grant payments are released. Even more likely to grab the attention of recalcitrant researchers is the further declaration that if they remain non-compliant, funding renewals and new grants are unlikely to be endorsed.

With more than £600 million spent on science each year the Trust has a large stake in ensuring that publically funded research results benefit the broadest community possible. They are not alone and, following on the heels of the recent scramble to produce data management roadmaps to meet the EPSRC’s nine expectations, which also carry the risk that non-compliance could threaten further funding, can we expect more such stiffening of the funders’ resolve? The recent Royal Society report, Science as an Open Enterprise, for which the Director of the Wellcome Trust was a member of the working group, is unequivocal in its aspiration, stating that “We are now on the brink of an achievable aim: for all science literature to be online, for all of the data to be online and for the two to be interoperable”.

But with the technology allegedly in place, or imminent, with major policies determined and with Government and heavyweight national authorities arm in arm, what lies behind the recusant 45% that strong-arm tactics may still find it difficult to turn?

The DCC’s own analysis of the motivation for openness amongst the research community is but one of many recent studies. Whilst it was found that researchers in general approved of openness as a route to increasing the efficiency of research and promoting scholarly rigour and collaboration, they decry the lack of evidence of benefits and rewards, they point to very real ethical and legal concerns and, quite simply, they profess a lack of the requisite skills, time and resource. These issues have yet to be satisfactorily resolved.

But it seems the pressure is now really on – and on a broader front still, for the target this time is not only the research community but more remarkably the academic publishers, who are perceived as placing unacceptable restrictions on information access. In its conclusion to yesterday’s announcement, the Wellcome Trust turned its attention to these restrictions on access to and re-use of published content. With the goal of unleashing content “while still allowing publishers to recoup their costs in an effective market”, the Trust plans to work with the Research Councils “in taking forward discussions with publishers to implement this change over the coming months”.

When the research community is only just beginning to talk about achieving openness of data rather than speaking exclusively in terms of making research papers openly available – a distinction that in any case is fast becoming anachronistic, since data and papers are increasingly dealt with as a bundled organism – can it really be just a matter of months? This is an initiative to watch.