The London headquarters of the Wellcome Trust

The London headquarters of the Wellcome Trust, which is launching an open-access journal for its grantees.

© Caroline Morley/Alamy Stock Photo

U.K. research charity will self-publish results from its grantees

Starting sometime this fall, the Wellcome Trust, the charity in London that has become one of the biggest nongovernmental funders of biomedical research, will launch its own open-access online journal. Publication will be limited to the thousands of scientists worldwide working on research funded by a Wellcome grant, and it will be free not only for readers, but authors—the charity is covering the costs charged by the company that will provide the journal's software and online platform.

The move has excited many critics of the traditional scientific publishing industry. "This really is a potential game changer for a major funder to be taking control of the research output," says Paul Ginsparg, the Cornell University physicist who founded arXiv.org, the massive online scientific preprint server. He hopes that U.S. funding agencies will follow suit. "It would be a miracle."

From the point of view of Wellcome and other nonprofit groups that fund science, academic journals can be an expensive drain on time and money. Publication can take months or even years before anyone gets to read the output of the research they back, and with traditional subscription journals the reader then pays for the privilege. One fix is the open-access publishing model: Authors pay up front and then anyone can read the work online for free.

This isn't the first time that the $24 billion charity has pushed for open-access publishing. Wellcome launched the open-access journal eLife in 2012 in collaboration with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and the Max Planck Society headquartered in Munich, Germany—and all three cover the author processing charges if their scientists publish in that journal. But the Wellcome’s new journal will take openness a radical step further.

Normally, peer review is anonymous and happens before publication of a paper. The charity’s journal, called Wellcome Open Research, will encourage researchers to post their work immediately on the site, as a full research paper or even just a data set. Only then does the peer review begin, and in this case the reviewers selected by the journal’s editors will be publicly known. "The transparent peer review process will encourage constructive feedback from experts," the Wellcome Trust's press release reads, "[focusing] on helping the authors improve their work rather than on making an editorial decision to accept or reject an article." Some other scientific journals and preprint servers such as arXiv similarly use postpublication peer review, although the concept has so far failed to be fully embraced by the research community.

This really is a potential game changer for a major funder to be taking control of the research output.

Paul Ginsparg

F1000, the scientific publishing service of the London-based Science Navigation Group, will manage the journal’s production on behalf of the research charity. "The costs [per article] are between $150 and $1000—dependent upon the length of the article—and will be paid directly by Wellcome," an F1000 spokesperson tells Science. In comparison, publishing an article in one of the open-access journals of the Public Library of Science costs authors between $1500 and $2900.

When asked why longer articles will cost more to publish online, the F1000 spokesperson noted that for studies with more graphs and tables "there is substantially more work in checking we have the underlying data, and then dealing with that data (checking format, labeling, suitable storage, etc.)." Wrangling peer reviewers for longer articles is also more difficult, she notes. "Hence we have based our pricing around broad bands of word counts, excluding references."

Not everyone is confident the new journal will have the game-changing impact desired by Ginsparg, even though they applaud Wellcome’s effort. "Even if successful, researchers will not wholly abandon journals with more hidebound peer-review processes," says Todd Vision, an ecologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who founded Dryad, the scientific data archive. "I prefer a different metaphor: It shifts the needle."

Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, who is an outspoken critic of traditional publishing, is equally measured. "I think it is a very interesting development. Whether or not it will be a game changer depends on the extent to which it is taken up. And that will probably depend on whether [biomedical researchers] are prepared to start judging each other in new, and, in my opinion, better, ways."