In win for open access, two major funders won’t cover publishing in hybrid journals

Plan S, the open-access (OA) initiative launched by the European Commission and Science Europe in September, has gained two major new members. The Wellcome Trust and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—two of the world’s largest private foundations that support research—announced today they are joining a consortium of 11 European funding agencies in requiring their funded research to be immediately free for all to read on publication.

The two new partners add a lot of funding muscle to the effort to require scientists to publish their papers in journals that make their content free to the public, instead of charging subscriptions. The existing Plan S coalition partners, represented by Science Europe, collectively spend about $8.7 billion on research. Wellcome, based in London, funds about $1.3 billion of biomedical research per year, whereas the Seattle, Washington–based Gates Foundation spends more than $1.2 billion on global health R&D.

The largest part of the policy change is that as of January 2020, Wellcome and Gates will no longer cover the cost of their grantees publishing in so-called hybrid OA journals, which have both subscription and free content. Most scientific journals now follow that hybrid business model, which allows authors to pay a fee if they want to make their articles OA. For the past decade, Wellcome has allowed its grantees to pay these fees, in part because it viewed them as a way to help publishers finance a switch in their business models to full OA. “We no longer believe it’s a transition,” says Robert Kiley, head of open research at Wellcome. “We’re looking to bring about a change where all research is open access.”

Wellcome will make two further changes that were already part of Gates Foundation OA policy: All articles must be made available under the Creative Commons attribution licence, to facilitate reuse of the content, and the research must be freely available immediately on publication. (Current Wellcome policy allows a publisher to keep an article behind a paywall for 6 months and is not comprehensive in requiring a creative commons license.)

Authors funded by either foundation can comply by publishing in OA journals. Or, if they publish in a paywalled journal, they must simultaneously add their accepted manuscript to the open repositories PubMed Central (PMC) or Europe PMC (EPMC). Some so-called “green” OA journals permit this immediate archiving. But most top-tier journals such as Nature, Cell, and Science do not allow this until at least 6 months after publication. (If the research relates to a disease outbreak or other ongoing public health emergency, then authors must also post a preprint before peer review.) Although the Wellcome policy technically allows publication in hybrid journals—with the condition of immediate archiving in PMC or EPMC—the principles of Plan S specifically exclude hybrid journals.

The new policies, also from Wellcome, differ from the Plan S principles with respect to article processing fees for OA journals. Plan S aspires to cap these fees at a certain amount, but Wellcome, noting that publishers vary in how much they enhance articles, plans to continue to pay whatever fees the foundation deems “reasonable.” (Gates is reviewing its policy on fees.)

Robert-Jan Smits, OA envoy with the commission in Brussels and a prominent advocate of Plan S, said in a statement that by joining the effort, Gates and Wellcome “make an important contribution to the objective of Plan S to accelerate the transition to full and immediate Open Access to scientific publications.”

*Clarification, 5 November, 2 p.m.: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Wellcome and Gates would bar their grantees from publishing in hybrid OA journals. This will in fact still be permitted, but neither foundation will cover the fees charged by these journals to make those articles OA. The policy notes an exception for certain hybrid journals until the end of 2021.