SPARC Innovator: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Open Access   ·   Open Data   ·   Open Education

Photo of Dick Wilder  Photo of Jennifer Hansen

Dick Wilder (left) and Jennifer Hansen (right) co-lead the team that developed the Gates Foundation new Open Access policy.

When an organization as large as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – which provided nearly $4 billion last year in direct grantee support – makes a policy change, people listen.

And when that policy embraces Open Access, it more than encourages those who advocate for free sharing of scholarly research to believe that others will follow suit, and that scientific advancement will indeed benefit.

The Seattle-based Gates Foundation adopted an Open Access policy that became effective 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.

Recognizing that such a large-scale change requires some time for a transition, the Gates Foundation is initially allowing up to a 12-month embargo period on research accessibility. However, starting January 1, 2017, immediate availability will be the foundation’s policy.

“We want to get the results of our research out as rapidly and as far as we possibly can – and do so at the lowest possible cost,” says Richard Wilder, Associate General Counsel for the Gates Foundation and co-leader of the team that developed its new Open Access policy. “We want to move the scientific fields in which we work so we are able to multiply the results of our funding.”

As a major funder of scientific research, the move by the Gates Foundation is a pivotal one that signals a turning point in the acceptance of openness.

“The Gates Foundation is specifically sending the message that when it comes to providing access to research outputs, sooner is better than later,” says Heather Joseph, Executive Director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC). For its new Open Access policy and the deliberative and collaborative process the foundation undertook to develop it, SPARC is recognizing the Gates Foundation with its July 2015 Innovator Award.

Crafting a course

Since the Gates Foundation focus is on improving global health and education, there had been a growing desire to provide more openness to the material it produced, says Wilder. New products, medicines, and diagnoses are developed with the foundation’s support, and the faster and more widely its funded outputs are made available, the sooner people can benefit from them.

To develop the policy, an 11-person working group met over the course of about nine months to review what other organizations were doing with Open Access and explore how the Gates Foundation might proceed. Representatives from global health and development, legal, communications were all included so when ideas were discussed they would be taken back to the teams for response.

“We didn’t create a policy from the get go,” says Jennifer Hansen, Officer of Knowledge and Research for the Gates Foundation in Seattle. “We first had a discussion about where we wanted to go, what was the best way to do that and how it would look.”

The group decided early on not to have a “straw proposal” and didn’t talk specifics until much later in the process, says Wilder. The hope was that by learning what had worked elsewhere and listening to the various stakeholders, the foundation could build consensus and reduce friction. This represented a departure from other funder’s previous approaches, and proved to be an efficient way to proceed.

What emerged was a policy that requires Gates Foundation-funded research to appear in publications that carry a Creative Common Attribution 4.0 Generic License (CCBY 4.0), with all data underlying the published research made open immediately – with no embargo. The foundation will pay the necessary fees required by a publisher to ensure the terms. With these requirements, the Gates Foundation policy represents the strongest Open Access policy developed by a research funder to date.

To avoid presenting grantees with too much of a “shock” with the final policy, the foundation decided to allow a transition period easing into the requirement over two years. “It creates a space for a dialogue,” says Hansen. “It’s not going to be easy, but we are trying to make it as simple as possible.”

Moving forward, those who helped create the policy realize it will only be strong if it is implemented effectively. To that end, the Gates Foundation is using its internal channels to get the word out and doing outreach to let applicants know about its new approach.

Wilder says the foundation’s goals and objective led it to adopting this policy which it hopes will get more useful information to the broader community that is the result of its research.

Advocates hope for a ripple effect

The question now, says SPARC’s Joseph: Will others take their cue from the Gates Foundation?

The new policy gives a boost to the movement, and being such a well-known foundation, others will look at it as a model, he adds.

Since late 2007, NIH been mandated by Congress to implement a public access policy that requires researchers to submit peer reviewed articles summarizing funded research in its PubMed Central repository, where they are made publicly accessible no later than 12 months after the official date of publication. Many articles are made publicly accessible well before the one year requirement and to date nearly 500,000 papers have been made public as a result of the NIH policy.

NIH is currently collaborating with other federal HHS agencies, including AHRQ, CDC, FDA, ASPR, VA, NASA, and NIST, to make articles resulting from their funded research accessible via PMC. All are acting in response to the Feb 2013 memorandum from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Hewlett Foundation, based in Menlo Park, Calif., announced its own “open policy” last year, rolling out the policy across programs over a 12-month period, starting last summer. Grantees in programs that are part of the policy are expected to adhere to the policy immediately. As of July 2015, Hewlett has a default CCBY license for all project grant deliverables, which lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build the findings, as long as the original author is credited for the original creation.

Feedback so far from grantees has been positive, says TJ Bliss, Program Officer for Hewlett. Increasingly, foundations are looking to be more transparent and the Gates’ policy – like Hewlett’s – is part of a trend. “I expect it will have a big impact on the research world,” says Bliss.

Melissa Hagemann, Senior Program Manager for the Open Society Foundations in Washington, D.C., says larger funders are adopting these policies and the Gates’ decision will likely raise the profile of the issue.

“It’s a huge win for Open Access as a whole,” says Hagemann. “It helps other foundations who want to develop similar policies to follow their lead.”

While proud of their work, the key players at the Gates Foundation are quick to credit others for making their new policy possible.

“While we are getting a lot of attention for our policy because it is a bold mandate, the environment we were in enabled us to do this,” says Hansen of Gates. “We were able to build on what others have done – and there is so much more to do.”

-by Caralee Adams

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