The science publishing pay wall – holding back safer food?

| June 10, 2013

At the end of May food manufacturing giant Nestlé announced the official opening of new state-of-the-art laboratories at its research centre in Switzerland designed to study foodborne pathogens. It is very good to see Nestlé demonstrate a corporate commitment to food safety research and put substantial funding into advanced facilities, but I was also struck by a comment made by Chief Technology Officer Werner Bauer at the opening ceremony. “The research done here will undoubtedly be a great asset for Nestlé, but we also have a responsibility to communicate and share the results with the scientific community and consumers, so everyone can benefit.”

There is no reason to doubt that this statement of intent is genuine – Nestlé has a long history of publishing research findings and even sponsors some journals. It makes sound sense to disseminate in-house research more widely. Encouraging researchers to publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals helps establish scientific credibility for the entire business and enhances its research profile, which in turn builds confidence. Just how far the new Nestlé facility will go down this route remains to be seen – they cannot be expected to publish openly the details of any process that gives them a commercial advantage over their competitors – but any degree of openness is to be preferred to secrecy.

I would like to see more food industry research published in scientific journals, but what would be even better would be a concerted move towards open access publishing. Food safety is a more serious concern in developing countries than in the developed world and foodborne pathogens continue to cause large numbers of preventable deaths. Research findings that could help those trying to tackle this problem on the ground are published every year in journals, but as long as it can cost $30-$40 just to read a single paper much of that material will remain inaccessible to many researchers and health professionals. Open access publishing is growing and more and more journals now allow authors to pay for their work to be made freely available, but keeping up with the latest research is still expensive. Big food manufacturing companies could make a real impact on the financial barriers that limit access to so much science if they were to embrace the open access model. If you are going to fund expensive research, why not spend a little bit more so that everyone can read about it when you decide to publish?

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