Wellcome Open Research: A Welcome Decision?

(July 29th, 2016) The Wellcome Trust plans to launch a free, open access publishing platform this autumn to accelerate research publishing and “support reproducibility and transparency” for researchers. Sounds good - but this initiative has also attracted considerable scepticism.

The Wellcome Trust is a London-based charitable organisation that supports biomedical sciences by funding both research as well as efforts to improve the public’s understanding of science. The recent announcement of Wellcome Open Research, an open publishing initiative, has created quite a buzz in the scientific community. This venture will see Wellcome partnering with F1000Research, an open access publishing platform for the life sciences.

In order “to enable their grantees to rapidly publish all outputs of their research”, Wellcome’s platform will follow “a model of immediate publication followed by transparent invited peer review, with inclusion of supporting data, enabling researchers to reanalyse, replicate and reuse the data”. Grantees will hence be able to share the entire range of research outputs with the public, be it success stories or even null or negative results. “Once articles pass peer review, they will be indexed in major bibliographic databases and deposited in PubMed Central and Europe PMC”.

This initiative hopes to speed up the lengthy publication process and make results available “almost immediately”. The post publication peer review shall provide “constructive feedback from experts focussed on helping the authors improve their work, rather than on making an editorial decision to accept or reject an article”. Ultimately, it is hoped that this move will bring about a long-term shift towards open research publishing and judge research, solely based on its own merits and not on those of the journal in which it is published.

In light of the announcement of the EU research ministers for science, innovation, trade and industry to commit to making Open Access a default option by 2020 (featured here in Lab Times), Wellcome Open Research could be heralded as a bold step in the right direction.

However, all that glitters is not gold and one needs to also understand the scepticism that has been voiced, since news of this platform became public. Kent Anderson of the Scholarly Kitchen blog has addressed this very well in his post. One of the first questions that he raises, is, why does the Wellcome Trust, a non-profit charity, want to partner with a commercial publisher like F1000Research in this venture?

This observation is especially significant as Wellcome already funds eLife, an open access life sciences and biomedicine journal. To add to that, Wellcome Open Research seems to more or less replicate the F1000Research model of publication for Wellcome grantees. Why this redundancy of scope?

Furthermore, F1000Research has often come under fire for its approach to publishing. Firstly, it only accepts papers from authors with a specific institutional affiliation or academic credentials. Secondly, it has not been able to maintain a rigorous post-publication peer review, due to the inherent weakness of this system. As Anderson puts it, “Post-publication peer review as a substitute for pre-publication peer review is really quite a game — publish first, and thereby put reviewers in an awkward spot of having to decide to undo a publication decision that’s been made without peer review. This creates a much higher barrier for rejection.” Thirdly, F1000Research’s approach to identifying and addressing plagiarism has also garnered criticism.

Anderson goes on to discuss the various conflicts of interest that come into play when the body funding the research also sponsors the publishing platform for the same. Can one expect the publishing platform to evaluate all publications in an unbiased manner? Would research output not suffer due to this loss of objectivity? Would scientists not feel compelled to publish with a platform belonging to their funding body, even if they would rather have published in another journal?

All of the above hold true in the case of Wellcome Open Research, and one begins to wonder why the Wellcome Trust chose to go down this path. Indeed, accelerating the publishing process and making research, supported by a non-profit charity, freely available to all are two very good reasons for pursuing such an initiative. Good intentions, however, cannot entirely justify the impracticalities of this platform. Yes, we would all like to live in a world of open access and appreciate all efforts that bring us closer to that ideal. However, these must also align with the high standards of transparency, quality and ethics that we expect from our scientists.

Latika Bhonsle

Photo: www.publicdomainpictures.net/Maita Ru

Last Changes: 09.01.2016