Wellcome mandates publication before peer review in health crises

Organisation joins Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in signing up to the Plan S open-access initiative

November 5, 2018
Nurses escort a man infected with the Ebola virus to a hospital
Source: Getty
Crisis management: the Wellcome Trust’s head of open research stressed that disseminating data on diseases such as Ebola is in line with its mission to improve world health

One of the world’s biggest research funders is to require research that could help to tackle disease outbreaks or other health emergencies to be published before peer review as part of a further step towards open science.

Releasing details of its new open-access policy, which comes into force in January 2020, the Wellcome Trust said that, “where there was a significant public health benefit to preprints being shared widely and rapidly”, the research must be placed “on an approved platform that supports immediate publication of the complete manuscript” prior to peer review.

Robert Kiley, head of open research at Wellcome, told Times Higher Education that it was “clearly necessary” to bypass traditional journal publication processes if that allowed potentially life-saving research to be shared more quickly.

“We think there’s real value in ensuring that once that work has been done, including some quality assurance, we get that research out there as soon as possible,” he said.

Wellcome deliberately chose not to specify that preprints must be published in cases of a World Health Organisation declaration of emergency, “because that was too limiting”, Mr Kiley added. “The WHO only declare that something is an epidemic when it spreads outside several countries – we want to apply this policy to all relevant cases,” he said.

The funder will still expect papers to be published “in a more formal way with peer review” further down the line, but Mr Kiley stressed that disseminating data “on Zika, Ebola or whatever the next disease outbreak is as soon as possible – that is completely in line with our mission to improve world health”.

Wellcome will also require all universities and organisations that it funds to sign up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (Dora) or an equivalent, or at least to publicly commit to its principles. Dora states that the academic community should not use the impact factor of journals that publish research as a surrogate for quality in hiring, promotion or funding decisions.

“What we are really trying to do is ensure that the institutions we work with take into account a whole range of factors when they do their hiring and promoting, for instance not relying on these crude journal impact factors,” Mr Kiley said. “A lot of universities are moving this way already, so I get the feeling that we are pushing at an open door.”

As part of its new policy, Wellcome has signed up to the principles of Plan S, a pan-European initiative that will require all research funded by participating bodies to be made freely and immediately available through open-access platforms as of January 2020. This means that Wellcome will no longer fund researchers’ article-processing charges in hybrid journals.

It was also announced on 5 November that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, another of the world’s biggest funders of scientific research, was signing up to Plan S, becoming the first organisation outside Europe to do so. Policies at the foundation, which invests about $1.2 billion (£960 million) a year in global health initiatives, were already broadly in line with Plan S.

Trevor Mundel, president of global health at the Gates Foundation, said he believed that “free, immediate and unrestricted access to research” was “essential to accelerating innovation, helping to reduce global inequality and empowering the world’s poorest to transform their own lives”.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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