Promoting the Cancer Moonshot, then-Vice President Joe Biden (right) speaks with Nobel laureate Paul Modrich (left), at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in 2016. 

AP PHOTO/Ben McKeown

In departure for NIH, Cancer Moonshot requires grantees to make papers immediately free

The long-standing debate over open access to research results has been marked by a geographic divide. In Europe, some public funders have launched a high-profile open-access initiative, dubbed Plan S, that would ultimately require grantees to publish only in journals that immediately make papers free to all. But in the United States, federal agencies have stuck to a decade-old policy that allows grantees to publish in journals that keep papers behind a paywall for up to 1 year. Now, the divide is starting to blur, with one prominent U.S. research program starting to require immediate open access to the peer-reviewed publications it funds.

The policy is part of the Cancer Moonshot program at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, the 7-year, $1.8 billion research initiative spearheaded in 2016 by then–Vice President Joe Biden after his son Beau died of brain cancer. Biden felt that broader data sharing would speed cancer research, and after hearing from open-access advocates he backed the concept for all cancer research papers. In a 2016 speech, Biden told the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR): “Imagine if… we said we will no longer conceal cancer’s secrets in… paywalled journals with restricted databases, and instead make all that we know open to everyone so that the world can join the global campaign to end cancer in our lifetimes?”

NCI officials embraced that idea, and drafted rules that require moonshot grantees to submit a plan for making their publications “immediately and broadly available to the public.”

That is a big change from the current policy at the National Institutes of Health, NCI’s parent agency. NIH requires only that final papers be available through NIH’s full-text PubMedCentral site within 12 months of publication—a delay that publishers cherish, saying that it safeguards subscription revenues and keeps journals viable.

NCI began to flesh out the moonshot open-access policy this summer after learning that what it believed was a moonshot paper—one of perhaps two dozen so far—had appeared in Cell, which is paywalled, says NCI Deputy Director for Scientific Strategy and Development Dinah Singer. (The agency later realized this paper hadn’t been funded by the moonshot.) At first, NCI considered accepting two free sharing strategies allowed by many paywalled journals: Researchers can either publish a draft manuscript in an online preprint repository or post the final accepted paper on their own website. But officials decided that “people aren’t going to look at everybody else’s website” for papers, Singer says. Instead, NCI opted for a “strictly” open-access policy, with rare exceptions.

The policy says moonshot authors can publish in either a fully open-access journal or a hybrid journal that publishes both free and paywalled papers. The authors can also include in their grant budgets the fees that open-access journals charge for peer review and other costs, usually about $2000 to $3000 per paper.

A researcher who co-leads one large Moonshot program, the Human Tissue Atlas Network (HTAN), says his collaborators agree the policy makes sense. “Best practice publications from the HTAN need to be widely and quickly available to the scientific community so that the methods therein can serve as a guide to the overall scientific community. Thus, we strongly support open access publication in order to maximize the impact of this project,” says Joe Gray of the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

NCI says it wants to enable grantees to publish in highly selective journals, including Nature, Science, and Cell, that don’t offer open access, and it has been discussing options with such journals. Cell says it expects to negotiate ways to make moonshot papers free, and Nature says it will consider the issue on a case-by-case basis. Science says it will allow authors to post accepted moonshot manuscripts on PubMedCentral as soon as the papers are published, and will make the papers immediately open access, as part of its policy of making papers “related to public health” freely available.

Singer says that, for now, NCI won’t expand the moonshot’s open-access requirement to other programs run by the $5.7 billion institute. “We consider this a pilot program and depending on [its] success … we’ll determine the next steps,” she says. But Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition in Washington, D.C., hopes the agency will go further. “It’s great that this policy is in effect for this small slice of public research,” she says. “But obviously we’d like to see it for all research.”