British Academy questions REF’s open-access deadline for books

Scholarly body warns mandate could ‘undermine the UK’s place in the global research community’

May 19, 2018
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A 2021 deadline for all academic books to be published in open-access format if they are to be submitted to the UK’s research excellence framework may be unrealistic, the British Academy has warned.

The national body for humanities and social sciences said that it was still not clear how the requirement – first announced in December 2016 but recently the subject of increasing debate – could be implemented without incurring significant additional costs for universities or “undermin[ing] the UK’s place in the global research community”.

It called for “full consultation on any concrete proposals for extending open access to monographs, without which it would be neither fair nor wise to impose new rules”.

Already, journal articles submitted to the REF must be made freely available within three months of publication, and the UK’s funding councils propose to extend this requirement to monographs for the 2027 assessment, the census period for which will follow the 2021 exercise.

In a position paper, the academy says that it is not clear how the book-processing charges associated with open-access publishing will be funded. A recent study estimated that these averaged £7,500 per title, equivalent to a UK-wide cost of £19.2 million a year. Although research funders might provide support for this, the academy highlights that most monographs “do not derive from externally funded projects but are the fruit of the research time of regularly employed academic staff”.

It has been suggested that funding could come from institutions’ quality-related research income, but the academy says that “any new funding stream to cover the costs of open-access books must be in addition to, and not drawn from, existing support”. “Otherwise, [institutions] would be being penalised financially for submitting books to the REF,” the paper says.

The academy expresses concern about the implications for “crossover” books, which are based on original research but also sell thousands of copies in high street bookshops, and for academics who publish with international companies, which do not always offer open access.

Until these issues have been resolved, the paper says, the “only options” are to “either to postpone these rules (or make them non-compulsory), until the shape of the publishing landscape becomes clearer, or else to treat a high percentage of books as ‘exceptions’” to the policy.

Even once clear rules and exceptions are in place, the academy says, “there is a danger that the proposed REF policy will undermine the UK’s place in the global research community”. Requiring books to be published in open-access format “threatens to reduce the reputation of UK scholarship as a whole and to promote – and reward – a culture of intellectual insularity”.

The academy argues that British universities might be reluctant to hire academics from overseas if their books are published in regions without open-access mandates, while UK scholars’ publishing options, and hence their international career prospects, might be reduced.

Mary Morgan, vice-president for publications and chair of the British Academy’s open-access working group, said that she was “particularly concerned” that requiring books to be freely available could disadvantage young and early career academics. Such young scholars would face a bind because they might lack the funding for book-processing charges but would also be aware that publishing in a format that is not open access would make their output ineligible for the REF – and thus unattractive to employers.

“We would expect there to be a high level of consultation about the policy and the means of delivering it before any mandate or deadline is set. This is essential if the policy is to have credibility and efficacy,” said Professor Morgan, professor of history and philosophy of economics at the London School of Economics.

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