April 28th, 2008 by dwentworth
When he gives talks for research foundations about ways to spur innovation, John Wilbanks often shares the story of John Snow, the anesthesiologist who in the mid-1800s used maps to figure out how a series of cholera epidemics were spreading. By marking the precise locations where the outbreaks occurred, Snow was able to demonstrate that they clustered around water sources, showing that the “morbid poison” was spreading through tainted water.
What does this have to do with modern-day research foundations? If you envision research outcomes as pieces of a map — in biomedical research, a map of the human body — you can easily see the advantages of ensuring that when they are published, they are published openly. A single research paper may not hold the answer to stopping an epidemic or curing a disease; placed in context, however, it could make finding the solution trivial.
The Wellcome Trust, a global leader among charity organizations, is working to keep the results of the research it funds “widely and freely available to all.” Importantly, it defines this freedom explicitly in terms that embrace the advantages that computers and network technology give us. The most recent update to its position statement on open access encourages — and in cases where it has paid an open access fee, requires — that funded research is licensed so that it can be “freely copied and re-used (for example for text and data-mining purposes), provided that such uses are fully attributed” (emphasis, mine). This might read as a minor parenthetical; in fact, the explicit freedom to use computer technology to derive value from the literature can help make the difference between having a map and continually, painstakingly redrawing it.
This is just one example of the smart choices the Wellcome Trust has been making to cultivate what it calls a “richer research culture.” Below is a brief overview of the Trust’s trail-blazing work over the past five years (with thanks to Peter Suber for his meticulous documentation of the work in the Timeline of the Open Access Movement):
- 2003: The Wellcome Trust commissions a report asking how the economics of scientific publishing impact the long-term interests of the research community. The findings are released in tandem with a landmark position statement supporting open and unrestricted access to the published output of research. Writes Suber: “When a foundation awards a research grant, it is showing its belief that the results of that research will be useful to the wider world. With its commitment to open access, WT is showing its belief that open access to those research results will make them even more useful.”
- 2004: The Trust announces its intention to establish a European PubMed Central, and to require that its grantees deposit an electronic copy of research publications in PubMed Central no later than six months after publication.
- 2005: The Trust makes history by becoming the world’s first research funding agency to implement an open access mandate.
- 2007: In January, the UK PubMed Central (UK PMC) is launched, a collaboration among of the Trust and nine other leading UK organizations. Wellcome Trust Director Mark Walport promises that the launch is “only the start” of an effort to develop the site as the resource of choice for the international biomedical research community. In the spring, the Trust signals its support for sharing preliminary research and findings, joining the British Library, the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) and Science Commons as a partner in Nature Precedings.
- 2008: The UK PMC holds a workshop on further developing the site. Its workshop report [PDF] hints at future developments to enhance the usefulness of the literature; in a summary of a discussion about text mining, Dr. Sophia Ananiadou explains that semantic markup helps text mining tools work “optimally,” and would allow researchers to “use a simple natural language query that will retrieve specific facts matching that query, rather than just a set of whole documents to be read.”
The Trust shows no signs of stopping pushing the envelope, making strategy and policy decisions that reflect its ongoing commitment to maximizing the “downstream” impact of research.
We can’t wait to see what’s next.