Scientific and medical research is to become more freely available to the public after a leading science funder threw its weight behind a campaign to promote open access to research.

The Wellcome Trust spends £600m a year on research (Getty)

The Wellcome Trust is changing its policies to promote open access to the scientific research it funds with a target of 100 per cent of it eventually being made freely available to the public.

Part of this drive will be the publication of eLife, an open access journal that will publish research in biomedical and life sciences. The first issue of eLife will published later this year with the backing of the Wellcome Trust, the US-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Germany's Max Planck Society.

Currently, research libraries and scientists spend millions of pounds on subscriptions to access research in scientfic journals. eLife would be freely available for all to read, to reproduce and for unrestricted use without the payment of a subscription.

The Wellcome Trust is also considering making changes to its funding arrangements to strengthen the obligation for researchers to make their research freely available. The Trust is exploring making it a requirement for current grant recipients to allow open access to their research before they reapply to the trust for funding.

Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Trust, said the organisation was keen to maximise the impact of the research it has funded by promoting open access.

"We spend £600m a year on research," he said. "It makes no sense to lock it behind a publisher's paywall."

Scientific literacy

Mr Kiley said making research more accessible is important because it helps to create a more scientific literate population. He said that wider access would mean the research would undergo greater scrutiny, which would lead to problems with the research being identified more quickly.

"We've all seen those health stories in the Daily Mail," he added. "Open access can let people see the research that the article is based on and decide for themselves, or if they can't understand it they can take the research their GP."

But he said that the venture was not a cost-free exercise. "We are responsible for 5,000 research papers every year. If every one was made open access it would cost between one and 1.25 times our total research spend." Currently only 55 per cent of Wellcome Trust-funded research is published for free.

The move towards open access would offer greater competition in the academic publishing field - an area of publishing that remains profitable.

The Publishers Association's director of academic publishing, Graham Taylor, said he welcomed the emphasis on quality in the eLife plans and the investment the Wellcome Trust was putting into the project.

But he said he did have some concerns about the venture's long term sustainability without any income from subscription.

However he said that if it succeeds in promoting high quality open access research, it would "set a benchmark" for the academic publishing industry.

"Other launches of open access journals have been quietly taking place," he said. "So this is not the only show in town, but it's a good show."