Fifteen years ago, the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Cape Town hosted Dr Harold Varmus, then the CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He had won the Nobel Prize in 1989 for discovering the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes and served as Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from 1993 to 2000. Shortly thereafter, Varmus led the effort to establish the Public Library of Science (PLOS), an initiative to promote open access journals. When chatting to our students (seen above right), he asked if they planned to publish their research in these journals.
Last week, the White House announced that by 31 December 2025 all federal agencies must make research articles funded by taxpayers freely available to the public as soon as the peer-reviewed journal has been published. Furthermore, the data that underpins those publications must also be made freely available “without delay.” This policy shift follows an initiative by Science Europe four years ago to ensure that research results funded by European research councils must be published in open access journals.
In April 2016, whilst he was serving as vice president, in an address to the American Association for Cancer Research, Joe Biden (seen left, © Todd Buchanan) said: “The taxpayers fund $5 billion a year in cancer research, but once it’s published, nearly all of that sits behind [pay] walls. Tell me how this is moving the [scientific] process along more rapidly.” The new policy is a significant step forward with Michael Eisen of Berkeley, a co-founder of PLOS, commenting: “The best thing I can say about this new policy is that publishers will hate it.”
Publishing companies will have to rethink their business model to accommodate open access where, instead of a university’s library paying for journal subscriptions, the publisher charges the researcher to publish her article. This was the case in 2017 when we submitted our paper on dual-modality breast imaging to Diagnostics, an open access journal published by MDPI who charged us $1800. I now earn a credit of $100 towards publication charges for each manuscript that I review for MDPI.
This new policy will affect up to 9% of the 2.9 million federally funded papers published worldwide each year. The advice Varmus gave in 2007 appears to have been taken seriously: Tinashe Mutsvangwa (top left) recently co-authored a paper on user-centred design in PLOS One, while Rethabile Khutlang (top right) co-authored an article on TB in The Journal of Infectious Diseases. The Nobel Laureate would undoubtedly be chuffed!