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HHMI announces immediate open-access policy

High-profile research funder joins Coalition S, says its scientists will have to publish in open-access journals starting in 2022

by Andrea Widener
October 1, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 38


Scientists who work for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will be required to make their research articles immediately and freely available to the public starting Jan. 1, 2022, the organization announced today.

HHMI is also joining Coalition S, the group behind a primarily European initiative called Plan S that is pushing for open access to papers immediately upon publication. This is a major change for the institute, which until now has said its researchers’ work could remain behind a journal’s paywall for a year. That is similar to the US government’s current policy for research that it funds.

While HHMI is joining Coalition S, its deadlines for implementing open access and exact details of its policy differ. Plan S will take effect for grants awarded starting Jan. 1, 2021, while HHMI’s new policy will not start until a year later. “It’s a long lead time that will help both our scientists and publishers to adapt,” says Bodo Stern, chief of strategic initiatives at HHMI, which employs almost 300 biomedical scientists at universities across the US and at its Janelia Research Campus. “And we do hope that publishers will adapt in quite substantial ways over the coming year.”

HHMI will require that research be published with a CC-BY license, which allows anyone to reuse, cite, or build upon someone’s work as long as the user gives credit. And like Plan S, HHMI scientists will be allowed to publish in subscription-based journals if they make a CC-BY copy of the final manuscript available in an online repository. For HHMI, publishing the paper in a preprint server will not suffice, Stern says. The final version, after peer review but without journal formatting or copy editing, must be openly available.

Chemist Luke Lavis, a senior group leader at Janelia who helped shape HHMI’s policy, says he remembers having trouble accessing research when he worked at a start-up company earlier in his career, so he thinks this change is good in the long run. “If we can have open access then that could improve the entrepreneurial spirit [of small businesses] and science,” Lavis says.

Journal publishers have generally opposed Plan S, saying it could hurt scientists who can’t afford publishing fees and scientific societies who rely on subscription fees to support other programs. But some are starting to come around. The Springer Nature Group has said it will start to transition to a fully open-access model, and other publishers like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society have created open-access journals that meet Plan S requirements (ACS publishes C&EN).

Stern says HHMI recognizes that journal publishing financially supports scientific societies, so it has given them extra time to adapt. HHMI-funded scientists can continue to publish in society journals until Jan. 1, 2023. Scientific societies might have a particularly hard time transitioning to open access, because they tend to be smaller, Stern says. Also, although society publishers make profits, they reinvest that money into the scientific community, he says.

HHMI scientists generally support open access, but only around 45% were on board when told it might limit where they could publish their work, the institute found in a survey. Younger scientists tended to more strongly support open access although they are more likely to be affected by an inability to publish in some journals, because tenure committees and grant-review boards often look at where a paper has been published rather than the science itself. However, “Once you have an umbrella policy like this, then it just becomes normal,” Lavis says. Evaluators “are going to have to focus now on the science and not just on the name of the journal.” HHMI is looking into ways to ease this transition.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, journals have pushed to make relevant research quickly and freely available to the public. “We shouldn’t withhold the benefits of openness from other research areas” Stern says. “There comes a time when an open-access business model is what is really needed.”


This story was updated on Oct. 2, 2020, to remove part of a sentence that suggested HHMI will allow its funds to be used to pay publication fees for open access in hybrid journals that publish a combination of subscription-only and open access papers. HHMI will allow this only if the journal has committed to becoming fully open access.



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