Sir Mark Walport

Wellcome Trust urges universities to take leadership in open scientific publishing

Diane Cabell, May 4th, 2011

Creative Commons plays an instrumental role in the Open Access movement, which is making scholarly research and journals more widely available on the Web. Last month, Sir Mark Walport, Director of the Wellcome Trust, spoke at Oxford University on the role of open access in maximising the impact of biomedical research. Wellcome is one of the world’s leading funders of scientific research. Walport’s lecture was the fourth in a series on scholarship, publishing and the dissemination of research presented by the Oxford University Research Archive (ORA). The series is designed to stimulate debate on the issues surrounding changes in scholarly communications.

In a reflection of the venue — Bodleian Library’s Convocation House where the, audience perched on the same 17th century seats as Charles II’s parliament — Walport traced the history of Western scientific publication noting that scientists have delayed dissemination of their findings for centuries. When Gallileo discovered the rings around Saturn Galilei, for example, he sent a coded summary of his findings to his competitors so that once his work became public he would be able to unmask the perpetrator should any of them try to steal his credit. Walport also reported that scientific publication was banned during certain periods as too dangerous for public consumption.

Scientists today are still highly dependent on attribution for their status. Publication in prestigious journals remains the prime determinant of a researcher’s employment and funding opportunities. Open access journals historically suffered a lack of prestige as their peer review procedures were perceived as less rigorous.* Open data faces similar barriers; while Wellcome and other major funders in the genome field have mandated deposit of data in open repositories, most of the larger scientific community continues to hoard findings until a desired personal value can be extracted.

Traditional commercial publication is not the only way to protect scientific reputations, however, and Walport urged academic institutions to take back their traditional responsibility for the dissemination of knowledge by promoting open access mechanisms that still address the researcher’s needs for attribution. The PLoS business model presents alternative funding approaches capable of supporting academic publication. Most importantly, academicians are recognizing that they themselves have been providers of the major value of publication – the actual peer review – a free service that could be as easily provided to open access publishers as to proprietary ones. Alternatives such as PLoS One’s post-publication peer review mechanisms by the scholarly community at large may also prove effective.

Walport believes that science is on the cusp of an historic change in regard to publication practices and advised the university to take an aggressive role in the open access movement.

A video of Walport’s presentation will be posted shortly on the oxford scholarly communications debate website.

*Corrected from “Open access journals do not yet share that prestige as they rarely include peer review mechanisms.

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