Time to bin all REF open access rules, say Oxford research chiefs

‘Excessively bureaucratic’ and ‘unaffordable’ rules on open access proposed for the next Research Excellence Framework should be discarded, say university executives

六月 11, 2024
 A team of litter pickers clearing up the morning after a music festival - Wilderness, Cornbury, Oxfordshire, UK to illustrate Time to bin all REF open access rules, say Oxford research chiefs
Source: Alex Ramsay / Alamy

Research leaders at the University of Oxford have urged the funders that run the UK’s Research Excellence Framework to scrap all of its open access requirements, claiming that compliance with expanded new rules is likely to cost the UK sector “hundreds of millions of pounds”.

In a blog published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, Patrick Grant, the university’s pro vice-chancellor for research, Tanita Casci, director of Oxford’s research strategy and policy unit, and Stephen Conway, director of research services, criticise what they call “unaffordable” and “excessively bureaucratic” proposed new requirements to make all research outputs eligible for assessment free-to-read.

For the first time, long-form outputs including books and book chapters will also need to be made open access within two years – a move that has already drawn criticism from humanities scholars worried about finding funds to cover the publication of open access books.

“The OA compliance cost for the new requirements for long-form outputs has been estimated at £20 million over a REF cycle for our university alone; add up these costs across the sector and it easily runs into hundreds of millions,” explain the Oxford leaders.

“This estimate does not include the cost of researchers and professional services teams engaging with a convoluted, technical policy.”

Overall, “the costs and the bureaucracy of implementing the expanded policy will be unaffordable”, they continue, explaining that “[making] all research outputs OA eligible for quality assessment – the output pool from which the best are selected – involves processing and checks on upward of 15,000 separate outputs produced by Oxford’s researchers each year”.

The new rules may also “unhelpfully distort the REF itself because the associated expense necessarily constrains the pool of eligible outputs that institutions can put forward”, the authors also argue, explaining that “for many outputs, especially books, funds are insufficient or non-existent” to ensure publication.

“For smaller institutions, compliance requirements will depend disproportionately on institutional subsidies and will increase the risk of not having enough eligible outputs to submit,” they argue.

The REF, which is run by the UK’s regional funding bodies, is currently consulting with universities and researchers on its proposed open access rules, which build on requirements introduced for the 2021 exercise. Trade books for a popular audience are exempt from the open access mandate.

Beyond the likely cost of the new rules, however, the Oxford research heads go further by asking the “more fundamental question [of] why we should have a REF OA policy at all”.

“What does OA have to do with research excellence? Not very much: an output that is OA is no more excellent than one that is not,” they state, adding that “arguably the REF OA agenda has driven researchers to a compliance-centric view of OA, rather than providing them with positive choices to increase the reach of their work”.

Noting the huge cost of the REF – the 2021 edition is estimated to have cost £471 million, double the price of the 2014 iteration – the authors urged the REF to dispense all rules around open access publication.

“The removal of an OA policy from REF 2029 will, in a simple single act, excise complex and costly bureaucracy for all concerned. It may also promote research quality and fair assessment,” they state.




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