Why Big Foundations Ganging up for Open Access is Important

Ford just became the latest large foundation to announce it will require its grantees to allow open access to the work it funds. It’s a nice sentiment, and heavyweights making this decision builds real momentum toward breaking up closed models of exchanging information.

Ford, Gates, Packard, Open Society, Hewlett. They’re some of the largest and most influential foundations in the country. But they have another thing in common—they now all require grantees to publish their work under a Creative Commons license, an alternative to copyright that explicitly allows some level of open access by others.  

A few of these funders have made this decision in just the past year or so, and are mandating the most open version of Creative Commons license (CC BY), which means grantees must allow use, reuse, and remixing, even for commercial purposes, asking nothing but attribution in exchange. 

Why are these huge foundations getting onboard with giving away what otherwise might be considered copyrighted material?  

Related: Six Funders Working to Set Science Free

Most of them have chalked up the decision as the right thing to do. Ford and OSF, for example, seek transparency and openness as goals in their programmatic work, so this extends that philosophy to those it funds. 

But the significance of this trend is more about momentum toward changing the old business models we use to exchange information. Basically there are a lot of scholars (and funders, apparently) who feel like we’re all getting hosed by copyright rules and publishers, and they’re sick of it. 

Creative Commons seeks to provide a more balanced and rational option than “all rights reserved” copyright, which stifles creativity and is often more restriction than the creators want. 

Related: The Ambitious Plan to Save the Patent System That’s Drawing Millions from Top Funders

This is huge right now in science and education. In research, for example, some of the most prestigious journals are extremely expensive to access. For work funded by taxes (or by philanthropy subsidized by taxes) throwing it behind a cost-prohibitive paywall seems to cut against the spirit of building knowledge. Many want to see this practice wiped out. 

Publishers are reluctant to change, however, and scholars would have a hard time making them do so. Even an individual funder requiring open access doesn’t do much toward increasing openness of info. 

In fact, on a small scale, there can be problems with requiring open licensing. For one, some funders don’t enforce their mandates all that well, meaning they don’t have any teeth. But the requirement can also encumber grantees, who, if they want to publish in prestigious, paywalled journals, would have to pay those journals large fees to make their work open. Less established researchers often feel unable to turn down an opportunity to work with publications like Nature or Science, but also don’t have the funds to pay the open access fees.

But that’s where the huge foundations' stand turns this whole thing into a big deal. It’s sort of like Apple dropping Flash support in its products because Steve Jobs hated the technology's drawbacks. Enough of these big-name funders might have the muscle to nudge along a system-wide change in how scientific and educational information is exchanged.  

In that sense, these policies by foundations like Ford are less about forcing grantees to make their work free, and more about sending a message to those reserving all rights to scholarly material — the times, they are a’changing.