Take Down That Paywall: Foundations vs. Top Journals Over Open Access

Foundations have been throwing their weight around for a while in the fight for open access to research, a contentious issue in academia in which proponents seek to break down steep paywalls and stodgy practices of journals.

A lot of the philanthropic participation has emerged in the form of traditional grantmaking toward projects like online platforms to exchange information, convenings on open science, and even an entire philanthropy-backed, open access journal. 


But another way that funders, especially the big ones, wield influence on the issue is by setting ground rules on openness when it comes to the work done on their dime. One of the biggest actors in this space is the Gates Foundation, and its flexing to get journals to open things up just got real.

A few years back, Gates announced it would roll out the world’s strongest open access policy, requiring its grantees to make their data and results immediately available upon publication, although establishing a grace period to end in 2017. At the time, we figured exceptions would be carved out or some kind of detente would be achieved. But as of January, the grace period is over, and as Nature’s independent news division reports, Gates grantees are officially not permitted to publish in journals that do not comply with the mandate. 

That means for the time being, some of the leading publications in the country, including Nature, Science, New England Journal of Medicine and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are unable to publish Gates-funded research. 

This all might seem like inside baseball, but it’s a real battleground in science and education circles, with ramifications on the collaborative nature of science, the public’s right to access information, and the ability of the developing world to engage with the scientific community. 

Historically, research results have been distributed via print journals, which researchers and academic libraries would have to subscribe to. In a manner similar to that seen in print media, that model has been undercut as the means of exchanging information have become open to all thanks to the internet. But many journals, including some that have the kind of elite reputation that can change a scientist's career, have retained a tight grip, with sky-high subscription and online paywall fees.

That kind of lockdown limits how easy it is for students, peer researchers and the public to access research, something open access advocates see as a huge problem for advancing science and the public interest. (This is a pretty good primer on the issue.)

Also as in print journalism, people are figuring out alternative models. After all, reviewing and publishing do cost money. An open access publishing movement has grown significantly. But academia tends to be slow to change, and the prestigious publications still hold a lot of power. 

That’s why Gates taking a stand, along with other leaders like the Wellcome Trust and government agencies, is such a big deal. Any single foundation, even one with $40 billion in assets, still funds a relatively small number of research papers. According to Gates, most of their grantees already publish in open access-compliant journals. Nature and Science are not exactly hurting for submissions either. 

But the number of foundations involved is growing. And Gates itself is large and respected enough that it can’t be ignored. Nature reports that some of the affected journals are either in talks with Gates or are actively discussing the policy. 

If some of them end up making concessions to Gates, it could be a crack in the dam that helps shift norms on openness for everyone.