‘Expect some softening’: where next for open-access books in REF?

Extending embargoes and permitting more exceptions are likelier than a full U-turn, suggest academic publishing experts

July 2, 2024
Visitors browse books during the first day of the London Book Fair at Hammersmith's Olympia Exhibition Hall to illustrate ‘Expect some softening’: where next for open-access books in REF?
Source: RichardBaker / Alamy

The fierce backlash against open access mandates for books in the Research Excellence Framework may force funders to extend proposed embargoes and exceptions, experts have said.

For the first time, those running the UK research audit have proposed that most long-form outputs, such as scholarly monographs and multi-authored editions, should be made free to read within two years if they are to be submitted to the 2029 assessment.

However, several leading bodies, including the British Academy, have recently urged the REF to pause its plans for open access books, insisting the proposals will damage research in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Most recently, the British Philosophical Association warned the “prohibitive cost” of extending open access to books – which it estimates at £10,000 per edition – would be “devastating” and “vastly reduc[e] the ability of philosophers to publish”.

Despite the vehement criticism, funders are unlikely to row back completely on the open access plan and would instead seek to soften the proposals, experts have predicted.

“Given the financial challenges facing UK higher education I would expect to see some softening of the final policy requirements in response to the feedback we’re seeing, but I would be surprised if OA plans for books are shelved entirely,” said Rob Johnson, founder and managing director of Research Consulting, which focuses on research policy and scholarly communication.

Instead, Mr Johnson said he expected funding bodies would want to “look seriously at extending the length of the embargo period beyond 24 months and broadening the exceptions available”.

Allowing more than the 10 per cent of long-form outputs to be non-open access, as proposed – in addition to the exception for trade books – would “see a smaller number of books fall within the policy’s scope and mean the level of potential disruption to publishers’ existing business models is reduced”, Mr Johnson continued.

“Adjustments along these lines could help mitigate the financial impact on institutions and publishers while still preserving the principle of open access to taxpayer-funded research outputs.”

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Anthony Cond, chief executive of Liverpool University Press and president of the Association of University Presses, believed Research England – the lead body on the REF – would want to “consider the carefully evidenced responses submitted by the academic and publishing communities, even if it isn’t always easy listening”.

“Consultations often include a few clearly negotiable points in order to allow concessions further down the line. For books in REF 2029, embargo period and tolerance level might well have fallen into that category,” he said.

Criticism of a lack of additional investment to support open access books – which experts believe would cost about £20 million a year – may have also “taken the REF team by surprise”, said Mr Cond about the sector’s “calls for proactive investment rather than passive ‘compliance’ at universities’ expense”.

However, Martin Paul Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, said claims that the REF mandate for books was being rushed could be easily countered, noting the move had been widely signalled back in 2016.

“To argue that it’s been done too quickly is to ignore the fact that we have had eight years of warning and little action has been taken,” said Professor Eve, who said lower-cost solutions to the REF mandate were available.

“Most responses that assume book processing charges are deeply unimaginative in their thinking,” he explained, noting the “multiple examples of new experimental models including Opening the Future, membership schemes and green open access that would fund OA without the inequalities that many assume will be introduced”.


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