Gates Foundation Embraces Open and Raises the Bar for Others

This post is part of a series on highlights and key takeaways from the 2016 SPARC MORE Meeting.

As the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works for change through better health and education, it wants its impact to be felt as throughout the world – and has long encouraged the researchers and organizations it funds to widely share the results of their work. More recently, they took things a step further by formalizing that commitment and adopting a strong open access policy.

At the 2016 SPARC MORE conference, Richard Wilder, Associate General Counsel for the Gates Foundation, provided insight on the development of this policy and challenged others to embrace open access to accelerate the advancement of science.

The Seattle-based foundation’s policy went into effect on January 1, 2015 for all new grant agreements. The mandate requires free, unrestricted access and reuse of all peer-reviewed published research funded, in whole or in part, by the foundation including any underlying data sets. ( This means greater impact for the work it supports to develop new drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics designed to reduce the burden of disease. It also stretches the reach of its others programs focused on agriculture, financial services, and improving education.

“We have as a core philosophy and management directive for our projects something we call global access,” said Wilder, noting the principle as has been followed by Gates for more than a decade. The foundation wanted to be more purposeful with a policy to ensure that the knowledge that arises from its funding is broadly and rapidly accessible to others who could benefit.

The policy is being phased in and will be fully implemented by the end of this year. Language has been changed in new contracts to mandate the open requirement and Gates will cover any author publication charges directly to publishers. Wilder acknowledge SPARC, and its assistance in working with Gates on the development of their policy.

What’s next for the Gates foundation? Access to data. While the Open Access policy contains language requiring access to the data underlying any publication, Wilder spoke at the SPARC meeting about an effort by Gates to make data even more broadly available.

Going forward, the foundation is focused on goals and targets for health, including reducing preventable death for children under 5 and ending the epidemic of malaria. “We need to know the burden of these diseases and drill down to understand what gave rise to the disease itself,” said Wilder. Then, information about tools, treatment, and cures need to be shared. Gates is working to make its data access agreements with various sources more open and use its leverage to lift data set restrictions.

“We have specific work that we trying to accomplish at the foundation…we want children to be born healthy, grow healthy and to develop appropriately. To do that we need to understand what is causing problem births, births of children at a small gestational age, and what can be done to correct that,” said Wilder. “Some things are simple in improving the health of the mother and nutrition. Others are more complicated. You have to understand the problem before you can begin to come up with solutions to fix it.”

Wilder shared two graphs – one showing the 53 percent drop in death of children under 5 from 1990-2015 and the other by SPARC reflecting the increase in articles are being published under a CCBY license in the past decade.

“One can draw a correlation between the two,” said Wilder. “As we have tried to drive to more openness and sharing of published materials and data, we have been able to draw in a wider range of actors into our work and make available to them the grist for the mill….and as we drive forward with open access to data, I think we are going to see even more evidence of that.”

Wilder said Gates is working to reduce barriers to access to data that can be technical, motivational, legal, economic, political, and ethical. “Our experience is that as we get into those barriers for the most part there are ways in the agreements that we strike that we can address them,” he said.

As the foundation and others look to move more toward transparency and sharing, Wilder is hopeful: “I think this will lead to an ability for us – as individuals and institutions – to do our work, but collectively to work in a more collaborative and cooperative environment to be able to unlock potential of data and find the solutions to global problems that confront us all.”

Learn more about our work