The Gates Foundation’s open access move ignores a better way to open knowledge

Last week, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation went far further than any other organization in mandating open access. From January of next year, all research funded by the Foundation will have to be made available and free online — including appropriate metadata to make the research searchable. While others, such as the Wellcome Trust and the NIH also have open access policies, here Gates requires that to occur immediately with publication rather than a year later. There’ll be no exclusivity for academic publishers this time.

This is a radical move in this space. As Nature commented in a blog post, this appears to mean that Gates funded research could not be published in Nature or Science. While Gates would fund publication costs, its open access policy would also allow re-use, including for commercial purposes. It is this aspect itself that would likely cause some alarm for academic publishers that are not open access.

While it is tempting to think that the Gates Foundation is just taking open access in a natural direction, the academic publishers themselves will be concerned that their editorial work could be appropriated by others. This is an obvious conflict in incentives and will likely lead to a bigger fight.

This is a fight no one will win. Academic publishers could hold the line on their policies but then they will be acknowledging they are not publishing the most significant research in their journals — undermining their journals’ position. But similarly, academics may shy away from Gates funding and that may threaten Gates’ mission-oriented projects.

From my perspective, it exposes that the fight is on the wrong terms because Gates is falling into a trap most academics and, let’s face it, all scholarly publishers are in — that the paper is the cornerstone of the dissemination of research results. Just consider this. Suppose there is a research finding and someone writes a particular paper to disseminate those findings. Is that paper then the only way anyone can find out about those findings? Is that paper the only conceivable means by which other researchers can examine methodologies and build on them?

No a paper isn’t that. Currently, it may seem like most research is only written up into a single paper and into a single format that complies with a journal’s guidelines. But why should that be the case? Can’t the same research be written up in two ways? Or more than two? And why are the journal guidelines the best format to build knowledge? It is far from obvious that is the case. After all, we can translate significant research findings into class notes, lectures and textbooks and no publisher can then say it is a violation of their exclusive right to that knowledge. Copyright doesn’t extend that far.

Given that a paper does not represent knowledge, my belief is that the Gates Foundation has actually gone too far here. It has taken a heavy-handed route to open knowledge based on an old technology — the single paper — whereas it should be embracing an opportunity to think about how that knowledge gets distributed apart from the published paper.

Instead, what if the Gates Foundation mandated that the knowledge be publicly available, searchable and usable for any purpose without permission? In this situation, that could mean, making a paper available under the terms it has just said. But it could also mean that a second paper — not in the style of Science or Nature — is also written that allows anyone to access the knowledge that the Foundation has funded.

This subtle change in language would avoid the fight that has now been picked and actually leave everyone better off.

Would this change undermine the business academic journals are in? The answer is only if they add no value above the raw knowledge an academic could make available themselves. But we are told that everything from the editing to the typesetting to the ease of access to academic journals adds value to them. So long as this is the case, they will still have the same business they already had. It is just that those who are unable to pay for access to the journals will still be able to access the knowledge.

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