Scientific research is distributed in journals, a system which has a number of flaws, one of which is it is expensive. Journals charge authors to publish their articles, readers to read the articles, and advertisers for space in the journals. This smells like bullshit before you know that both publication and access fees are often paid for out of government grants, with the second most popular source being “companies that want you to buy their product based on the publication.” It’s why I’m often forced to work from abstracts, rather than full journal articles. I can get the authors’ conclusions from abstracts, but they rarely contain enough information to evaluate the experimental methodology. The US government has made various efforts at enforcing “open access” policies, which would force research funded by public money to be accessible to the public, but they’ve always been defanged.
The system persists because publishing is a prestige based system. Scientists are most rewarded for publishing in the most respected journals (in biology that’s Cell, Nature, and Science), none of which are open access, and have no incentive to be as long as they are the first choice for scientists. An individual scientist can make a principled stand and insist on publishing in open access journals, and I’ve known some who’ve done it. After they get tenure. Before then, they can’t afford the risk that some committee member who still thinks the internet is a dump truck will take publishing in a less glamorous open access journal as a sign of failure.
But not all research is funded by the government or for-profit enterprises. The Gates Foundation has just declared that any research they fund must be published under a creative commons license. They also require the underlying data to be publicly available, which might be even more significant. It’s not clear to me how this will play out: maybe a bunch of awesome Gates-funded research will be publicly available. Maybe promising young academics will refuse to take Gates money (although given the relative availability of talented academics and money, they’re probably replaceable). Maybe this will start a marginal revolution of ever higher prestige journals going open access, giving the public access to additional non-Gates research as well.
Either way, I think the Gates Foundation did a really good thing here, and I really want to see what happens.