I

f you build a new publishing platform, will they come?

That’s the question that is on some minds after the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest funders of biomedical research, announced this week the launch of a new e-journal. The new site, called Wellcome Open Research, will allow any scientists whom the Wellcome Trust funds to publish their work for free.

Scholars who submit to Wellcome Open Research, which will be run by F1000Research, will have a faster route to publication. They’ll experience more rapid peer review, post-publication, than with conventional journals; they can submit just a data set if they choose (in an echo of another such venture); and those reviews will be fully transparent, without anonymity. They can use such publications to back up claims that they figured out something first.

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Wellcome Open Research drew praise from Paul Ginsparg, the founder of the preprint server arXiv, who told Science that it was a “potential game changer for a major funder to be taking control of the research output.” That’s a bold claim from someone revered in some parts of science for having come up with a game-changing idea himself.

But will Wellcome Open Research really bring about revolution? After all, the charity has already dipped a toe in these waters with the creation in 2012 of the online open-access outlet eLife. That venture, with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society, didn’t exactly turn cricket into baseball. From the bleachers, eLife, with its 85 percent rejection rate, looks a lot like an open-access version of the kinds of journals its founders disdain. And bioRxiv, a similar venture to Wellcome Open Research, already exists.

The key, of course, is whether scientists will choose to submit to Wellcome Open Research. And, to quote another famous Brit, there’s the rub. At least at the moment, researchers have relatively little incentive to do so beyond fealty to the notion that conventional publishing is outdated.

After all, as Robert Kiley, a top Wellcome official, told STAT: “There will be no requirement to publish any outputs on the Wellcome Open Research platform. However, we hope that researchers will start to see the benefits of this platform — speed of publication, transparency of the peer review process, the ability to publish a wide variety of outputs from standard research articles, to data sets, and null and negative results — and will consider this venue when seeking publication.”

To be a real game-changer — as opposed simply shifting the needle, as Todd Vision, who founded a data archive called Dryad, put it in Science — Wellcome, and other funders, will have to take another step: really incentivizing scientists to publish in preprint venues.

Wellcome seems to know this. “We have always made clear that it is the intrinsic merit of the work, and not the title of the journal or the publisher with which an author’s work is published, that should be considered in making funding decisions,” Kiley said. “This will apply just as much to outputs published here as to outputs published in more traditional publishing venues.”

Perhaps. But stronger language on that front can only help. What if Wellcome said explicitly that they will give points to scientists who publish in Wellcome Open Research when it comes to grant decisions? That could be a first step toward breaking the hegemony of prestigious journals. Researchers will need a lot of convincing to dive into uncharted waters when the only map they’ve ever seen shows Nature, Cell, and Science as the islands on the way to the other shore marked “job security.”

And as the old ad line goes, when Wellcome talks, other funders will listen. “Wellcome was the first major funder to mandate open-access publishing for the research they funded, and most other funders followed,” Vitek Tracz, chairman of F1000 and another publishing pioneer, told STAT. (Full disclosure: One of us — I.O. — worked for Tracz for eight years in unrelated ventures.) “Now Wellcome is the first to offer this new way to publish research. We believe this can transform the way research findings are communicated, and we will do all we can to make it happen.”

Wellcome could make a serious play for changing funding incentives. Then we’ll have a chance for a game-changer.

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