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Unlock the gates

Microsoft billionaire gets ready to shake up publishing

Last Thursday, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation published a small announcement about its open-access policy. Under the headline Knowledge is Power, the foundation declared that future grantees would need to provide free access to their research findings and underlying data “immediately upon publication”. In return, the foundation will pay “reasonable” article processing charges, with effect from 1 January 2017.

The foundation said it was joining the growing open-access movement pioneered by the Wellcome Trust, the US National Institutes of Health, Research Councils UK and others. The Gates policy, however, differs from the open-access consensus among these funders in at least two respects.

First, it rejects the need for an embargo between an article being published and becoming free. And second, it is comfortable with the idea that anyone should be able to use its published data, including for commercial purposes. In the foundation’s view, there is no need for publishers or funders to enjoy exclusive benefits from the research they publish.

Depending on your point of view, this is either the toughest open-access policy adopted so far, or the most liberal. It is also a very ‘Gates’ way of seeing the world, and a signal of where the Microsoft founder might go next in his broader ambitions to shake up research and publishing.

The good news for users of research is that the policy is completely in line with the foundation’s desire to back public policy issues where a funding gap exists—even if that means going against its funding peers, just as it has defied the consensus on open-access embargoes and reuse.

The implications for publishers are mixed. The good news is that a large charity is a more reliable source of article processing charges, at least compared with public funders. The bad news, however, is that the policy won’t benefit them in the long run.

Last year Gates (the individual, not the foundation) was among a consortium of investors contributing $35 million to the collaboration and networking platform ResearchGate. This is not, as is sometimes assumed, a not-for-profit organisation. It is a business dedicated in part to disrupting how research is published and communicated—though how it will make money isn’t yet clear. One of its services, Open Review, invites users to critique published papers. ResearchGate chose a Nature stem cell paper as its inaugural target when the service was launched in March.

ResearchGate has more than 5 million registered users uploading 2 million publications every month and 700 data sets every day. These figures can only go in one direction if Gates Foundation grantees are compelled to publish open access.

So far, information uploaded to ResearchGate is free to access for all users, but will it be in the future? Its owners may well decide to take more control of its content—thus the foundation’s largesse may disguise another, subtler way of controlling access to research results.

But this detail is likely to be lost when history is written. If explosives pioneer Alfred Nobel can be remembered for a global peace prize, there’s no reason why Bill Gates, creator of a closed computer operating system, should be remembered for anything other than setting knowledge free.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight