The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle, Washington.

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Gates Foundation strikes deal to allow its researchers to publish in Science journals

An unusual and perhaps precedent-setting deal will enable researchers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to comply with a foundation requirement that they publish their papers only in free, open-access (OA) journals, but still publish in the Science family of subscription journals, which typically keep content behind a paywall for a year.

Under the deal, announced yesterday, the foundation will award $100,000 to AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider) to enable the publisher to make any paper by a Gates Foundation–funded researcher published in 2017 immediately available for free online. The deal covers Science and four sister subscription journals: Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, Science Immunology, and Science Robotics. (AAAS also publishes Science Advances, an OA journal.) The arrangement is provisional and will be revisited in 2018.

The deal is likely to affect only a handful of papers. The five journals published just 12 papers by Gates Foundation–funded researchers in 2015, and seven in 2016, according to an AAAS spokesperson. But it could spur a greater number of submissions and publications from researchers funded by Gates, the spokesperson added. 

Last month, the Gates Foundation announced that it would not allow researchers it funded to publish in subscription journals; the move to put into action a policy the foundation initially announced in 2014. Specifically, the Gates Foundation wants its researchers to follow a publishing standard known as Gold OA. It requires researchers to make studies and underlying data freely available immediately after publication, allowing anyone to reuse them for commercial and noncommercial purposes—also known as publishing under a CC-BY license.

The Gates Foundation requirement initially put a number of highly cited journals—including Science, Nature, and The Lancet—off limits to Gates Foundation–funded researchers. But foundation officials said they were talking with subscription publishers about ways to bring their titles into alignment with the Gates Foundation policy. The Science deal is one product of those talks, and Dick Wilder, associate general counsel at the Gates Foundation, told Nature that the foundation might be making more announcements soon.

The Gates Foundation “is taking these steps because we want to advance the conversation around open access publishing and ultimately find new ways of accelerating impact and saving lives,” wrote Leigh Morgan, the Gates Foundation’s chief operating officer, on Medium yesterday.

Muted reaction

The move doesn’t come as a surprise to Matthew Cockerill in London, co-founder of OA publisher BioMed Central and the cloud-computing firm Riffyn. “It was a natural next step in a series of moves by research funders in recent years, seeking to ensure that the results of the research they fund are communicated with maximum visibility and minimum delay,” Cockerill tells ScienceInsider. “I think the prominent science journals that still do not offer a Gold open-access option are going to find it increasingly difficult to maintain their opposition,” he says.

Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-founded the OA publisher Public Library of Science, says the AAAS–Gates Foundation deal is “far less important” than the Gates Foundation’s wider OA policy. “The future is with immediate publication and postpublication peer review, and the sooner we get there the better,” Eisen says.
Neurobiologist Björn Brembs—a prominent OA advocate—also thinks the deal is not important. Brembs, based at the University of Regensburg in Germany, says institutions should scrap the subscription publishing model entirely and put the savings into other publishing and data-sharing activities.