Letter from the editor | 276

Knowledge for all

The journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published by the British Academy of Sciences, is the oldest scientific journal in the world. It was founded in 1665 and sold at 1 shilling per copy with the aim of presenting an overview of new discoveries in natural philosophy. Started as a personal project by the first secretary of the academy, which was founded five years earlier, Transactions became an official publication of the Royal Society in the eighteenth century. Other academic societies soon followed suit, and in the nineteenth century, commercial scientific journals began to proliferate.

Disseminating research results is an essential part of the knowledge production process, allowing data and ideas to be discussed and used to help advance different fields. Today, thousands of scientific journals worldwide publish millions of articles every year. Journals vary in the disciplines they cover, manuscript selection procedures, reader access restrictions, and circulation methods.

Today, the scientific publishing market is a lucrative one: research published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE in 2015 showed that just five commercial publishing companies accounted for 50% of all articles published in 2013. One of them is Dutch publisher Elsevier, which has a portfolio of 2,500 journals and declared a profit of £900 million for its science and technology division alone in 2017.

One major limitation of the predominant model is that readers are charged a fee to access the articles, which is contrary to the logic that the best way to advance knowledge is to share it quickly and extensively. Another issue is that research, at least in the case of the basic sciences, is largely funded by public resources.

The academic community has been developing alternatives, such as open-access journals that do not charge readers, or hybrid models where authors can pay an extra fee to make their article available to all readers for free.

The drive to change the current system was recently given a huge boost with the backing of the European Union (EU). This issue’s cover story explains Plan S, the EU initiative to ensure that publicly funded research is made widely available. In addition to the strength of its own science budget, investing €100 billion from 2021 to 2027, the EU is supported by philanthropic institutions such as the Wellcome Trust and the Gates Foundation. Expected to come into force in 2020, Plan S still needs to establish a transition process and to address criticism from the scientific community, which has defended the freedom of the press, as well as opposition from commercial publishers. It remains to be seen whether Plan S will succeed in promoting the radical changes it is proposing.


On January 8, the Brazilian government announced that the country is pulling out of the UN’s Global Compact for Migration, ratified by the General Assembly in December 2018. This is a controversial topic that has been subject to many misconceptions. Data from the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Labor show that Brazil is actually a country of emigrants—there are 1.2 million foreigners living in the country and 3 million Brazilians living abroad. In an effort to challenge stereotypes, a multidisciplinary team from University College London and scientific journal The Lancet reviewed scientific evidence on migration and health. The thought-provoking results are described on page 74.