Toward a New Open Access: The Gates Foundation policy refresh

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are shifting their focus toward preprints. What does that mean for grantees, for eLife and for Open Science?

By George Currie, Content Manager at eLife

On March 27, 2024, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced their future Open Access policy shift that has potential to accelerate reforms in scholarly publishing. Coming into effect from Jan 1, 2025, the policy refresh will introduce two fundamental changes for grantees.

First, the Gates Foundation will no longer support article publishing fees, closing the door on the current most common business model for Open Access.

Second, grantees will be required to share preprints of their research, pushing research toward a preprint-first approach and removing the barriers of price and prestige from participation.

Alongside these changes, there’s also the commitment to support open infrastructure that ensures articles and data are easily and readily available. More equitable publishing models and models that focus on preprint review, including eLife’s new model, will continue to be supported as part of the policy.

When considered together with free-to-publish open solutions such as Open Research Europe and the Toward Responsible Publishing proposal from Coalition S, The Gates Foundations’ announcement shows a clear direction of travel toward a new, more equitable open access.

Decoupling Open Access from APCs

APCs have been a double-edged sword in the move toward more open science communication. On the one hand they have made open-access business models attractive to publishers. This has normalised open access, helped it reach critical mass and established Open as the new paradigm for publishing. On the other, they have created new forms of inequity and reward structures that bad actors have been able to take advantage of.

Decoupling the APC from Open Access helps distinguish the problems caused by APC models from the benefits of more equitable science communication. The Gates Foundation’s move away from APCs gives more power to other models for Open, and creates space for them to flourish.

Preprints and Preprint Review

Fast, free, and fair early access to research accelerates science communication and facilitates scientific progress. Yet traditional publishing is slow. Preprints allow you to share your research in hours or days rather than months.

Peer review adds tremendous value to research outputs in helping researchers improve or refine their research. But it is a poor filter, often diverting and delaying rather than ultimately preventing scholarship entering the record. The signals of quality we use to differentiate research such as journal brand names and the Journal Impact Factor are equally problematic – judging the book by the cover – and do not tell us about any individual piece of research.

Though there is evidence to support the reliability of preprints, the move toward post-publication review will require a behaviour change on the part of readers. Everything must be evaluated on its own merits, not by if or where it’s published. This requires time and energy and is seen as an additional burden on already stretched-thin researchers. But the reality is this behaviour change is just as necessary now. It is only habit that allows us to believe that publication is tantamount to trustworthiness. The accept/reject threshold has been proven faulty.

Preprint review and other modes of transparent or open review and assessment help ease the burden on researchers to have to individually evaluate everything they could possibly read. Rather than being used to inform a binary decision, the expert commentary and contributions of peer reviewers can evaluate the strengths and limitations of research with nuance. Sharing those observations with readers can then springboard deeper engagement with research. Scientific discourse can become an iterative conversation rather than a series of artefacts.

Supporting Open Infrastructure

The policy refresh also commits to supporting an open infrastructure that ensures articles and data are openly available. Increasing support for Open Infrastructure could help combat some of the challenges of Gold OA. If Gold has created new challenges in research – quantity vs. quality – the solution won’t be to hide things back behind a paywall, but instead to push for more openness and more transparency – and to build the infrastructure to support it.

Driving Cultural Change

Alongside this is a call for a wider cultural shift in research publishing that places “equity and access over prestige and personal interest.” The Gates Foundation acknowledges that “new, more equitable models have not gained traction because publishers are slow to change and have pushed back when revenue is threatened.” This throws down the gauntlet to big-brand journals and publishers to offer more equitable solutions, even if they might not be the most profitable.

eLife is already on this journey pushing toward a more equitable and open future for research. Our new Reviewed Preprint model for publishing will continue to be supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and grantees will still be able to use their funding toward publishing with eLife. (Keep an eye on this page for more information on grant funding eligibility).

Why wait?

This policy has the potential to create a tidal change in open scholarship. If you’re excited by this then the good news is that you don’t need to wait, you can already adopt these practices and make small choices that move the needle toward a fairer system. Preprint your next paper, share your data, and put community over competition.