A Wellcome change to scientific publishing?

The days of subscription-based journals may be numbered with the news that the Wellcome Trust is putting its very considerable weight behind the movement in favour of open access to scientific journals. Second in size only to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in its contributions, the Wellcome Trust is mandating that the research it funds must be published in freely available, open access journals. To further support this initiative it has also announced the development of a new high-quality journal, eLife, intended to eventually rival top journals such as Nature and Science.

Online technology has caused a seismic shift in the way journals deal with the submission, review and publication of manuscripts. Many scientists now access journals exclusively online. However, less well-resourced members of the academic community, such as those in the developing world, struggle to get access to research findings. Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, is of the opinion that public- and charity-funded scientific research should be freely available to anyone who wants to read it, and for whatever purpose.

Many scientists empathise as they see the rising cost of access to academic journals swallow ever shrinking research budgets. According to David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK, British universities spend around £200 million a year on subscriptions to electronic databases and journals.

Mandatory publication of publicly funded research in free-to-access journals can only be expected to alter dramatically the publishing landscape. Issues surrounding the current peer review system have already been raised. "One of the biggest costs in the whole scientific publishing world is borne by the academic community, which is that of peer review," said Walport. "The journals have benefitted from having free, potentially very expensive consultancy. Again, why do we do that, if the end product is going to be locked behind a paywall?"

Clearly, if this movement gains momentum business models will need to change for publishers to be able to maintain profits. The first shots have been fired.

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