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The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will require grant recipients to make their research publicly available online -- a multibillion-dollar boost to the open access movement.

The sweeping open access policy, which signals the foundation’s full-throated approval for the public availability of research, will go into effect Jan. 1, 2015, and cover all new projects made possible with funding from the foundation. The foundation will ease grant recipients into the policy, allowing them to embargo their work for 12 months, but come 2017, “All publications shall be available immediately upon their publication, without any embargo period.”

“We believe that our new open access policy is very much in alignment with the open access movement which has gained momentum in recent years, championed by the NIH, PLoS, Research Councils UK, Wellcome Trust, the U.S. government and most recently the WHO,” a spokeswoman for the foundation said in an email. “The publishing world is changing rapidly as well, with many prestigious peer-reviewed journals adopting services to support open access. We believe that now is the right time to join the leading funding institutions by requiring the open access publication of our funded research."

The foundation is a major player in funding research on all levels of education, and also in international development and public health. Its many funded projects range from preparing high school students for postsecondary education and boosting college completion to reducing tobacco use and preventing malaria.

The foundation explained the broad outlines of the open access policy in a five-point list posted to its website. All reports, along with their underlying data, will be published under a Creative Commons (or equivalent) license, tagged with metadata and placed in repositories to ensure they are discoverable.

“We believe that published research resulting from our funding should be promptly and broadly disseminated,” the foundation wrote, adding that the policy “will permit all users of the publication to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format and transform and build upon the material, including for any purpose (including commercial) without further permission or fees being required.”

Given the foundation’s massive endowment (valued at $42.3 billion) and its interest in higher education, the policy is likely to reverberate through the research funding environment, said Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, who called the announcement “a big leap forward” for open access.

“It's the first time a funder has explicitly set a policy that will secure free, immediate access -- along with full reuse rights -- for all articles reporting on its funded research,” Joseph said in an email. “It's also notable that this is the first funder to put a time limit on the use of embargo periods, underscoring that embargoes are simply a transition mechanism to get to full open access. This sends a strong signal to other funders that the needle continues towards a system of sharing research results where the default mode is open.”

The spokeswoman said the foundation will work with the publishing industry to enforce the policy. Based on its estimates, the foundation funded 2,802 articles in 2012 and 2013, and about 30 percent were published in open-access journals. Many open-access journals use publication fees to make up for the loss of income from subscriptions. As those fees can cost authors thousands of dollars, the foundation is prepared to cover the costs of publication.

“We are committed to paying reasonable fees required by a publisher to effect publication under our new policy,” the spokeswoman wrote. “If the volume of publications with a particular publisher warrants it, we will negotiate with publishers to determine the appropriate article processing charge.”

As of Sept. 30, the foundation had awarded a total of $31.6 billion in grants.

None of that research will be subject to the new policy, however. The foundation has no plans to make the policy retroactive, the spokeswoman said.

That means projects such as the Digital Learning Research Network, an initiative led by the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge (or LINK) Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington, won’t be required to publish its research for anyone to reuse. The lab announced a $1.6 million grant from the foundation Nov. 17.

George Siemens, the researcher who serves as executive director of the LINK Lab, said “we will certainly be promoting open sharing of data and open publication of results to member institutions” even though they are exempt. The foundation “has actually been pushing openness for several years,” he added.

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