REF 2029 is in listening mode on open access

The open access policy for REF 2029 is still up for debate. Dinah Birch and Steven Hill are open to change on open access

Dinah Birch is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Liverpool, and a former pro-vice chancellor

Steven Hill is Director of Research at Research England. He is also a member of the REF Steering Board.

The current consultation on Open Access (OA) policy for the next Research Excellence Framework (REF) includes a proposal concerning long-form research outputs.

This has sparked a lively debate, and the higher education funding bodies are looking forward to a wide range of input and evidence that will allow the proposals to be revised and refined.

This is a genuine consultation, seeking to balance the encouragement of OA with ensuring that all disciplines continue to thrive.

Glorious mono

Monographs and other long-form outputs are central to research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. This is reflected in the publishing practices of researchers in these disciplines and, of course, in the outputs that are submitted for assessment in the REF. In REF 2021, more than 46 per cent of outputs submitted to Main Panel D, and nearly 17 per cent of main Panel C outputs, were monographs, edited books, or book chapters. Many books were “double weighted”, counting as two outputs. The panels also considered a diverse range of other output types including creative work, practice research, performances, and exhibitions.

OA brings opportunities for wider access and use of research, and there are already many OA long-form research outputs. Funders both internationally and within the UK now have requirements for OA across all disciplines. UKRI has introduced an OA requirement for long-form outputs, building on those already in place for funders including Wellcome, the NWO in the Netherlands and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

As OA expands throughout the humanities and social sciences, its advantages are becoming clearer. OA books receive more than twice the citations, ten times more downloads, and ten times more online mentions than books without OA. Researchers from the Global South are able to benefit from work that might otherwise remain inaccessible to them. In stark contrast to the journal publishing market, demand for print books alongside digital OA versions continues. Some evidence suggests that the existence of an OA version can lead to enhanced revenues from the sale of print copies.

Book group

A diverse publishing landscape has begun to emerge, with a range of business models. Despite these evolving practices, OA for books poses significant challenges. Though the current publishing system clearly contains sufficient resources to sustain its operation, the flow of those resources will need to change. At present, costs to the author can be significant, representing a serious obstacle for less well-resourced institutions. The licensing of third-party content, of central importance in many disciplines, is difficult. And long-form publication timelines can be long and depend on sustained relationships between authors and publishers.

The current proposal attempts to strike a constructive balance. A range of book types are excluded from the proposed requirements completely: including trade books, creative works, and exhibition catalogues. For REF 2029, the proposed long-form requirements will only be in effect for the final three years of the publication period, so would only apply to a proportion of submitted books.

Our proposal allows a range of approaches to OA, reflecting the publishing models now available, including the option of self-archiving the author-accepted manuscript in an institutional repository after an embargo period of up to 24 months – longer than for the UKRI policy. It is proposed that each submission may include up to 10 per cent of books (not including exempt outputs) that don’t meet the requirement without penalty. Finally, there are a proposed set of exceptions to the policy, including cases where the licensing of third-party materials creates a barrier to OA publication.


A key question for the consultation will be whether the balance between supporting OA for books while preserving a thriving research system is appropriate. The funding bodies will be looking carefully at the evidence submitted and adjusting the final policy as appropriate.

Later implementation, more exceptions, a longer embargo period, permitting a higher proportion of outputs that do not meet the requirements, or including the possibility of exemptions on the grounds of the political sensitivity of an output: these are amongst the options that can be considered for the final policy.

Finally, it is important to emphasise that OA requirements are distinct from processes of assessment. The aim of OA policy is to support a diverse publishing landscape where researchers are free to choose a publisher that will reach the right audience while meeting OA requirements. The implementation of the policy will take into account the needs of researchers working with collaborators or overseas publishers, where OA is not yet the norm.

It is a longstanding feature of REF that the publication venue does not influence the assessment. Adherence to this policy is confirmed by panels in their overview reports and the REF team members that attend panel meetings. Where the OA requirements are met through the self-archiving of an author-accepted manuscript, the OA version will not be used for assessment. The panels will read and assess the final published version.

Supporting a transition towards OA for all disciplines is a priority for the Higher Education Funding Bodies. We encourage the arts, humanities, and social science communities to engage with the opportunity to test thinking represented by the current consultation. The funding bodies are committed to adapting the approach to OA in response to the input and evidence received.

6 responses to “REF 2029 is in listening mode on open access

  1. It’s hard to consult without a definitive statement of the policy you are consulting on. Where in the documentation released to date is the statement referenced above about exhibition catalogues being exempted? What is the definition of a monograph as opposed to a book (output type A)?

  2. My genuine response to your genuine consultation is that the REF serves no useful purpose, actively harms academia, and should have been scrapped decades ago, so please do not even think about doing another one in 2029.

  3. Open research is important, but the place and way of driving this forward is not through more sticks.. and should not be at the expense of research not being included for submission.. Don’t have a Policy that not only requires lots of administrative work, an unintended consequence in a massive increase in expenditure for publications… Include it and assess the Open Research Environment/Culture in institutes – that could include processes, advocates of OA, changes in processes, open educational resources, open software etc. The OA requirements of REF2021 caused so much pain and time administratively and led to outputs that were excellent not being assessed – don’t compound this further, and don’t agitate academics further by telling them that their monograph that has taken years of work can’t be assessed/considered in REF, and don’t add further admin burden to repository staff.. more checking of embargo periods etc.

  4. If OA is the goal then scrap the REF and actually fund OA publication with the money saved. The relentless use of the REF to impose policy goals without full funding has put huge pressure on researchers to the point where trivial results are now published and celebrated by researchers and reviewers in a “grade-inflation” race to find the absolute minimum publishable unit.

    If you have data on OA benefits publish the source so we can check it. Publishing costs money, and underfunding it as now is not helping move to OA.

  5. I recall for REF2021 needing to put together an A3 flowchart to cover the various possibilities on OA-eligibility of publications – and it still didn’t cover every obscure case that was possible, just the most common ones.

    It looks like my successors in that role will need an even bigger sheet of paper to cover the extra requirements this time round (is it a book? -> yes -> is it a trade book, etc.? -> no -> is it published in 2026 onwards? -> yes -> is it subject to the exemption in guidance paragraph 367? -> no -> [continued for five pages]) so that they can understand them, then verify that their data collection system correctly implements them, then be confident that the national collection system also correctly implements them.

  6. But is REF2029 really prepared to listen? From webinars attended with UKRI/REF2029 so far, the questions asking for REF to reconsider and assess openness (open research) in the PCE (People, Culture & Environment) section of the REF seem to go unheard and unaddressed… Even when substantially upvoted by those attending the webinar… Which makes one wonder… Are they listening… Or only to what they want to hear? Trust HEI’s to have their own workflows and policies around open research rather than enforcing a myriad of rules around eligibility of outputs to be assessed – should REF not really be focused on assessing the quality of the research produced, and the culture of open research – which is much wider than outputs.

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