Toward the end of West Africa’s Ebola outbreak, researchers uncovered vital research on the virus: data had been published in 1982 that could have helped speed up treatment, but it was not viewable or usable due to paywalls and copyright laws . The discovery was heartbreaking – a lesson on lost time, perhaps when time mattered the most. When the Zika outbreak was declared a public health emergency in 2015, the Gates Foundation, other funders and researchers heeded this lesson and called for increased access to research to advance innovation .
The Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization led the charge to adopt a bold new policy that elected to forgo the existing restrictions on access to and re-use of research and data. Going forward, all research on Zika, would be free, accessible and re-usable by all. This would enable researchers from around the world to share cutting-edge information and build on each other’s work, so we could get to ground-breaking solutions quicker .
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest public health donor, has long been a leader in advancing innovation and research on the world’s greatest health challenges. Each year, the Gates Foundation awards hundreds of millions in prize money for to spur innovation to address some of the most pressing global health issues .
Spurred by the Zika Open Innovation initiative, last year, the Gates Foundation launched an organization-wide policy committing to make a 100 percent of research published with Gates Foundation funding to be freely and immediately accessible, with the underlying data re-usable by all with proper attribution. To help make this a reality, the Gates Foundation launched a new platform, called Chronos, where grantees can share early research findings and collaborate with each other. The platform also connects grantees with journals offering open research options, given that according to the new policy grantees can only publish in journals without paywalls .
As background, most scientific research today is not openly available or usable. Instead, it lives behind time embargoes, paywalls and copyright licenses, preventing it from being accessed and used by others.
A growing movement for open research seeks to change this because limitations on the use of scientific discoveries affect the efficiency of research, increase costs, and ultimately delay or even impede scientific progress. If published research and data were freely accessible and re-usable by researchers from across sectors and around the world, urgently needed solutions could be greatly accelerated. Scientists could quickly cross-check important studies, catching potentially consequential mistakes. Medical providers could access the latest technical guidance, improving patient care. And students all around the world could build on each other’s work .
While there are many benefits to increased sharing of data and research – as demonstrated by rapid progress against Zika – the Gates Foundation’s policy has been met with pushback both internally and externally. Researchers funded by the Gates Foundation have expressed concern that their findings may be misused or misrepresented, given that anyone, anywhere can use their research in any way. They have also cited concerns about not receiving appropriate credit for their work. Additionally, many view open research as contradictory to the traditional paradigm of academic advancement. At many institutions, climbing the academic ladder has often been tied to publishing exclusive studies in prestigious journals. Researchers are worried that restricting their publishing options to open research platforms will prevent them from attaining tenure .
Changing the status quo will be difficult – but it’s also necessary. Innovation doesn’t happen in a silo – and the speed of innovation needed to address disease outbreaks and other pressing challenges requires greater collaboration. Sharing information freely and fully will be essential to generating new life-saving and life-changing innovations. The Gates Foundation as a leader in the space is well suited to enact change.
In the short term, as the Gates Foundation rolls out its new open research policy, it will need to take measures to communicate the benefit of the policy clearly. In addition, it will need to ensure that research and data are not misused – and when it is used, it is properly cited. This could include requiring researchers to notify the primary author before using the data. Longer term, the Gates Foundation could open the Chronos platform to researchers beyond their own grantees, bringing together more minds to advance innovation. Furthermore, increasing research collaboration will require the Gates Foundation to work with the broader research community to untie the value of research from the name of the journal it is published in.
- If a researcher builds on another researcher’s work and the outcome leads to a profitable innovation, who gets the profit from the innovation? Should the profit be shared between all contributors?
- How can the tenure system change to encourage a more collaborative environment?
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 Bernice Dahn, Vera Mussah and Cameron Nutt. April 7, 2015. “Yes we were warned about Ebola.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/08/opinion/yes-we-were-warned-about-ebola.html
 World Health Organization. Zika Open. http://www.who.int/bulletin/online_first/zika_open/en/
 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. https://www.gatesfoundation.org/
 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Open Access Policy. https://www.gatesfoundation.org/How-We-Work/General-Information/Open-Access-Policy
 Richard Wilder and Melissa Levine. December 19, 2016. “Let’s Speed Up Science by Embracing Open Access Publishing. STAT News. https://www.statnews.com/2016/12/19/open-access-publishing/