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An open-access requirement puts pressure on elite, subscription-only journals to make articles free to read on publication.


HHMI, one of the largest research philanthropies, will require immediate open access to papers

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), one of the largest research philanthropies, said today it will begin to require its scientists to make research papers in which they played a leading role immediately free to read. HHMI now requires open access within 12 months of publica­tion.

After the policy takes effect in January 2022, the move could block the institute’s scientists, who include some of the biggest names in biomedical research, from publishing in top-tier, subscription-only journals such as Cell, Nature, and Science. Work by more than 4700 staff members, including 256 investigators and nearly 1700 postdoctoral researchers at laboratories across the United States, could be affected, HHMI says. But if elite journals continue to join the movement toward open-access publishing, HHMI authors may gain new options for compliance.

HHMI spends “an enormous amount of money supporting biomedical research”—$763 million in 2019—“and we feel strongly that it’s critical that the information is rapidly disseminated so that it can be reproduced and built upon,” says the institute’s president, biochemist Erin O’Shea. Like HHMI, U.S. federal science agencies require that research they fund be made free, but only after 12 months. “The delays … are a problem for science,” O’Shea says. “It’s not helping to speed up the discovery process.”

The institute’s policy and strategy are similar to those of Coalition S, a group that includes funders mostly in Europe who in 2018 launched a campaign to flip subscription-based journals to immediate open access. HHMI is joining the coalition as of today, joining two other wealthy philanthropies that already belong, the Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The policy applies to papers on which an HHMI scientist is the first, last, or corresponding author, and it allows several options for compliance. Authors can deposit a near-final, peer-reviewed version in a free public archive, such as PubMed Central or others to be named by HHMI. Or they can publish in a hybrid journal, which allows authors to pay for immediate open-access publication but also charges subscriptions—but only if the journal is transitioning to immediate open access for all content. (For nonprofit publishers’ journals, this provision is delayed until January 2023.)

The policy will put pressure on some top-tier subscription journals, O’Shea acknowledges. In 2019, it would have applied to 13% of all papers in Cell, 5% in Nature, and 7% in Science, the institute says. But this week, Springer Nature reiterated that it plans to make its journals—including Nature and others in the Nature family of journals—compliant with Coalition S’s requirements, dubbed Plan S, when those requirements take effect in January 2021.

AAAS, which publishes the Science family of journals, including the open-access Science Advances, is also considering a change. AAAS currently allows authors to post near-final versions of accepted articles on their personal or institutional websites, but authors must wait 6 months after the final version is published before depositing a near-final version in PubMed Central.

HHMI said it will not accept that as compliance; open-access advocates have said papers on authors’ and universities’ websites can be hard to find through online searches. HHMI and Plan S also require that papers be published under a public copyright license called CC-BY, which allows people to repost, reuse, and data mine the articles for free as long as they credit the authors. (Many open-access articles, including those in Science Advances, carry such a license.)

AAAS is exploring whether to allow authors to post the near-final versions of articles in an archive with a CC-BY license immediately after the final version is published, said Bill Moran, publisher of the Science family of journals, in a statement. “We continue to work to support authors whose research is impacted by funder mandates, while also maintaining our commitment to high-quality publishing and author freedom,” he said. AAAS and other publishers of selective journals have said the high costs of reviewing the many submissions that they reject make it challenging to offer authors an affordable fee to publish articles immediately open access.

Although HHMI has supported a series of open-access measures since 2007, its decision to adopt the new policy has drawn in-house opposition. A survey indicated that about 50% of its investigators did not support it despite 4 years of planning and internal discussions, O’Shea said.

Neuroscientist Erich Jarvis, an HHMI investigator at Rockefeller University, says the policy poses what may be short-time pain but long-term gain. Reviewers for grants and professional advancement expect to see publications in top-tier journals, so if some become off-limits, “that puts us between a rock and a hard place,” he says. But he lauds the policy’s intent, saying he prefers to publish articles open access because they tend to attract more citations than those behind journal paywalls.

O’Shea says she expects the investigators’ support will grow after Plan S takes effect in January 2021 and more journals expand open-access options. “I’m quite confident … that there will be options available.”