REF open-access requirement for books ‘worth the outlay’

Concerns over cost and impact of proposals can be overcome, say scholars

April 17, 2018
book-o-mat
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As preparations for the 2021 research excellence framework continue apace, UK-based academics could be forgiven for pushing the 2027 assessment to the back of their minds for now.

However, one specific element of the plans for the REF after next has been triggering lively debate in recent weeks: the proposed extension of open-access requirements for submitted outputs to include long-form scholarly works and monographs.

The UK’s research funders, which first proposed the change in December 2016, argue that requiring books submitted to the REF to be freely available reflects higher education’s shift towards open-access models.

However, the move has been criticised by some scholars who question how universities will be able to afford the book-processing charges associated with open-access publishing for all titles published from 2020 onwards. Writing last month, Margot Finn and Richard Fisher, the president and vice-president (publications), respectively, of the Royal Historical Society, warned that arts and humanities disciplines might be unable to fund an open-access model, and questioned whether standards of peer review could be maintained under such a system.

They also argued that the funders’ proposals “militate adversely against the freedom of individual academics to choose where to offer their own work for publication”, and that they could prevent UK-based researchers from publishing in prestigious North American series that are not open access, or in trade series that attract wider audiences.

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, argued that the RHS statement was “misleading”.

He highlighted that the funders’ consultation makes clear that there will be “legitimate reasons why some monographs cannot be open access”, such as “lack of viable electronic or open-access publishing options” or “a substantial dependence on royalty payments for sustaining an author’s research endeavours”.

International publishing should not be adversely affected, Professor Eve added, “since many top US – and worldwide – academic presses offer an open-access option”. But he acknowledged that the mandate was not without its challenges.

In a paper published last year, Professor Eve and colleagues from the library and publishing sectors estimated that the average book-processing charge stood at about £7,500, meaning that a UK-wide shift to open access could cost £96 million over the REF census period, or £19.2 million a year – a bill that, they say, libraries could not support.

Given that only £12.4 million of the annual book-purchasing budgets of UK academic libraries appears to be spent on research monographs, this “would leave a shortfall of £6.8 million per year even if the entire budget was converted to [open access] expenditure”, the paper says.

One solution might be to use embargo periods – a “green” open-access model – allowing books to be sold for a period of time before they become available under open access.

David Prosser, executive director of Research Libraries UK and co-author of Professor Eve’s paper, argued that additional funds could be found, and that the most reasonable source was government-allocated quality-related research (QR) funding.

“Anyone looking to library budgets to facilitate a REF mandate for OA monographs is looking in the wrong place,” he told Times Higher Education. “We looked at a variety of different funds, and QR did seem to be most obvious in terms of size and the proportion…but the mechanics of how that’s done would be complex and probably controversial.”

However the mandate is funded, it would be worth the expenditure, said Dr Prosser, arguing that “£19.2 million per year is not – in the greater scheme of what the UK spends on research – a huge amount of money”. “The side-effect of the REF policy is that it makes research more widely available. If you think the research is important, then surely you must think that the dissemination of the research is as well.”

Individual researchers might come across issues surrounding third-party rights when submitting books, particularly in subjects such as art history, Dr Prosser noted, but many of the concerns expressed so far came from introversion.

“I worry there may be some academic communities who are quite comfortable for the moment keeping within themselves and that might be one of the reasons why they feel uncomfortable opening their work up to the wider research community,” he said. “OA should be our default if we are to make UK research truly accessible.”

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: REF’s call for open-access books sparks debate over how to turn the page

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