REF2029 Open Access consultation opens

Here we go again

James Coe is Associate Editor for research and innovation at Wonkhe, and a partner at Counterculture

The four UK higher education funding bodies have opened a consultation on REF 2029’s approach to open access policy.

For REF 2029 the team has suggested some tweaks to the 2021 process which are technical in nature but important. There is still an expectation that open access will remain the strong preference for publication barring some exceptions on third party licences, outputs authored prior to the REF 2029 deadline, criteria beyond the control of the institution, and specific challenges determining author relationship to an institution and enforced embargos.

There is a more robust recognition on the technical limitations where any “any outputs meeting UKRI open access policy will be considered to have fully met REF policy however it is not a requirement that all in-scope outputs should meet this standard.”

In REF 2021 there was an embargo period of 12 months for REF panels A and B and 24 months for C and D. Effectively, this meant an author would deposit their output in a repository but the material might not be freely available immediately. The team is proposing that for REF 2029 this period should be shortened to 6 months and 12 months respectively. This is in the belief that open access policy is more generally moving toward more immediate open access.

Attracting the most attention is the policy around the publication of longform outputs. This includes “Monographs, Book chapters, Edited books, Scholarly editions” which would have to be made available after an embargo period of 24 months.

The obvious challenge here is the cost of making books open access within two years particularly if they are selling well. The other issue is the expense in making an entire book open access and who would bear that cost. There is a mooted exemption “Where the only appropriate publisher, after liaison and consideration, is unable to offer an access option that complies with REF policy,” but how this would be assessed consistently is up for debate.

Background reading

At its most simple open access is what it sounds like. It is the availability of research outputs made available free to all.

Open access comes in a variety of forms. There is golden open access wherein an article will be made freely available for anyone to read. And there is green open access wherein academics deposit a version of their article in an open access repository. The models of open access differ between journals but it’s important to note that open access does not mean articles are produced for free. There is generally an Article Publication Charge (APC) which is leveraged on institutions, learned societies, somewhere else, or a combination of people and institutions.

The argument for open access is that it is unjust to gatekeep knowledge through access fees which could have a positive impact on humanity. Martin Eve, a researcher who is committed to open access, wrote for Wonkhe that “Keeping research locked behind paywalls under the assumption that most people won’t be interested in, or capable of, reading academic research is patronising.”

UKRI has a whole open access policy. An article by David Kernohan and Graham Steel in 2017 stated that “All major UK funders now require that research stemming from their funded projects is open access, and open access is a de facto requirement for REF2021. Institutions and research groups regularly require that research outputs are shared openly via an institutional research repository.”

And so it came to pass. REF 2021 made a clear statement that open access was preferable in sharing the total of human knowledge while acknowledging the limitations of software, paywalls, databases, and the wider publishing ecosystem, in making open access possible and demonstrable in every example of publishing.

The REF is not only an exercise in measuring research quality but it is a powerful tool through which research policy is set. Open access is also not only about the dynamics of the publishing industry but a question of who knowledge is produced for and at what costs. Setting exemptions on open access, licensing requirements, and embargo expectations, is also to set a direction for the future of open access more generally.

The consultation is open till 17th June.

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