REF: funders ‘running out of time’ on open access monographs

Proposals to extend open access requirements to include all long-form works beyond REF 2021 divide opinion

July 10, 2018
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UK research funding bodies are running out of time to make a decision on future open access requirements for the research excellence framework, experts have warned.

In planning for future assessment cycles beyond 2021, Research England has stood by proposals to extend open access policies to include all long-form scholarly works – meaning that these works must be made available easily and free of charge, if they are to be submitted as evidence.

The announcement was first made in December 2016, but has become the subject of intense debate in recent weeks.

Academic groups including the British Academy have questioned the practicalities of such a mandate, arguing that certain disciplines might be unable to afford a blanket open-access model owing to costly book processing charges associated with publishing.

Leaders of the Royal Historical Society also highlighted concerns, warning that such requirements “militate against the freedom of individual academics to choose where to offer their own work for publication”, which they said went against basic academic principles.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Steven Hill, director of research at Research England, stood by the funding body’s transition towards open research as one that had “the potential to bring benefits to all disciplines”.

“We are keen to see those benefits extend to disciplines where long-form publication is the norm, which is why we signalled our intention to extend open access requirements to long-form publications for the REF after REF 2021,” he explained.

REF policymakers have welcomed the debate surrounding the move, pledging “further engagement with researchers, institutions and publishers” to help come to a common agreement. But leading academics have said that delaying the process any longer could have consequences.

Martin Eve, professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, and a member of the Universities UK working group on open-access monographs, said that urgent clarity was needed on how REF leaders intended to implement the policy since “books are often pre-contracted many years before they are published”.

“Books for the third REF will be going under contract now,” he told THE. “Without adequate guidance or knowledge of what the mandate that REF ‘intends to move towards’ entails, researchers are simply proceeding with business as usual.”

“Business as usual” means that researchers who publish books through a commercial agent for example, could be left in a situation where their best work is ineligible for submission beyond 2021 – to the detriment of their university department and overall assessment score.

In a blogpost ahead of his talk on the same theme at the Jisc and Coalition for Networked Information leaders conference on 2 July, Professor Eve reiterated that the most “workable solution” was for Research England to secure extra funding for the initiative, to the sum of £19.2 million per year, as per a cost study commissioned earlier this year.

Alternative options to put no extra money in or to withdraw the mandate entirely felt risky, as well as “an utter shame for the public exposure of humanities work and its place in society”, he added. However, “if there is to be extensive sector-wide consultation…this really needs to be done as soon as possible”.

“It seems to me that there is no road forward that does not antagonise or irritate one or more of the demographic groups within UK higher education,” he wrote.

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