HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England), the body that funds and oversees English universities, has asked for responses for its proposals to allow only papers that meet its criteria for “Open Access” to be submitted to the next Research Assessment Exercise (REF), the periodic review that determines how much research funding each university receives. Here is my response:
Open Access and post-2014 REF
1. I am not opposed to Open Access (OA) in principle, and I can see the long-term benefits of its universal adoption within academic publishing—at least for scientific articles and papers. The argument is less convincing when it comes to books. But it is very far from clear to me how the UK can benefit from unilaterally moving to OA outside the framework of an international agreement, when the market for academic research is a global one. Against this background, I believe the proposed routes and timetables for OA adopted by the UK government, RCUK, and HEFCE are dangerous for British academia, especially in the humanities and social sciences. In particular, I believe that the proposal to use the REF as a disciplinary tool for achieving OA aims is a huge mistake that could have appalling long-term consequences.
2. Following the Finch Report, you argue “in the long term, the gold rather than green route may be the most sustainable way to deliver open access.” In the present funding context, the gold route (in which author pays APC, output is immediately available to public) has serious disadvantages. At an estimated £1500 per article, few academics will be able to afford to pay APCs themselves. They will therefore depend upon their institutions to do it for them. HEFCE has made clear that there will be no additional funds given to universities to cover these costs. It seems extremely unlikely that there will be funds available to cover APCs for all articles produced in British universities and accepted for publication. Some will therefore not now be published, or at least not published in venues admissible for the REF (unless they are published as green OA). Far from the products of research in British universities being more easily available to the public, therefore, some proportion of those products may not now be available to the public at all—not for reasons of quality, but for reasons of cost. I don’t see how this is of advantage to anybody: funders, researchers, or consumers.
3. In some ways even more disturbingly, so long as funds are not available within all universities fully to support the costs of APCs for all researchers, there will have to be some rationing mechanism developed for the use of such funds as there are. You do not have to be an Einstein to imagine the viciousness of the dogfights over these funds—between universities, between disciplines, between colleagues—that are likely to result. Nor does it require much imagination to identify the likely losers: early career scholars, especially those on sessional contracts, retired faculty, individuals working within lower-ranked and worse funded universities. More generally, what gets published will now be susceptible to all the factors that determine the allocation of budgets between and within universities, including disciplinary hierarchies, university managers’ strategic priorities, institutional politics, and personal rancor. It might be worth mentioning here that the four papers Albert Einstein published in 1905, which by common consent laid the foundations of modern physics, would likely never have seen print under gold OA: he did not have a university post at the time, but worked as a (not very well paid) clerk in the patent office in Berne.
4. Notwithstanding the current inequalities between institutions, hitherto in the UK a researcher’s chance of his or her paper being published has depended entirely upon journals’ processes of peer review. Under these proposals, not only will the range of publication venues be narrowed by HEFCE and RCUK—in ways that could impact very negatively on individuals’ careers if leading international journals published outside the UK do not go down the OA route. Universities will be the gatekeepers to the funds a faculty member needs in order to be able to afford to publish his or her work at all in venues approved by HEFCE and RCUK. It is here that tying the REF to OA is most dangerous, because not being submitted in the REF—whether because of having published in “the wrong place,” or because a university was unwilling or unable to fund the APC—may cost researchers promotion or even, in the extreme case, their jobs. Given the importance of publication at every stage of an academic career, it is difficult to conceive of a more serious threat to academic freedom.
5. For all the reasons given above, I believe that green OA (materials deposited in an institutional repository and made freely available after an embargo period) is much preferable to gold. However, I am not sure, in the long run, that the embargo period central to green OA is workable. If it is too long, funders won’t accept it as true OA. If it is too short, the risk is that libraries will not continue to pay subscriptions for journals whose contents will become freely available online within a year or two anyway. Here differences between disciplines become crucial. In the sciences a two-year embargo will usually be well into, if not well past, an article’s “half-life.” In the humanities, where the typical wait for a journal article to be published is two years, it will only just be beginning to be cited at the point it comes off embargo. Green OA avoids the patent inequities and threats to academic freedom that accompany gold in the UK funding context. It runs the risk, however, that many journals, especially in the humanities, may be driven out of business if embargo periods are too short, with a consequent further restriction of opportunities for academic publication. This is most likely to affect smaller, independent journals published by learned societies (thereby jeopardizing funding for those societies’ other activities). It is also likely to inhibit the emergence of new journals, to the academic community’s detriment.
6. The advantages of OA are most obvious for the natural sciences, where the paper (often short, often multi-authored) is the most common vehicle of publication, the half-life of papers is relatively short, and journal subscription costs are high. But none of these conditions obtain in large areas of the humanities and some areas of the social sciences, where books are equally common vehicles of publication, the half-life of publications is much longer, and subscriptions are generally cheaper. In History, the monograph—generally single authored—remains the “gold standard” of research publication, while chapters in edited collections are as common as journal articles. I do not accept the argument that “research in all subjects has equal importance and therefore equally merits receiving the benefits of open-access publication.” This would be true if and only if the form of OA adopted takes into account the requirements of the relevant disciplines. The proposals set out in Open Access and Submissions to the Research Excellence Framework post-2014 fail to meet this test. In mandating a model tailored to the publication requirements of the natural sciences, you risk seriously jeopardizing publication opportunities in other disciplines.
7. Where this refusal to take sufficient account of disciplinary differences is clearest is in the paper’s woefully inadequate discussion of monographs. You recognize that “there may be some exceptions during this transitional period” (para. 17), of which the monograph is one. You express hopes that OA will proceed more gradually with regard to monographs (para. 22), while recognizing that “we are at present some way from a robust and generally applicable approach to open-access publication for monographs.” You ask for advice on whether this anomaly is best handled by treating the monograph as an exemption or “specifying that a given percentage (for example, 80 per cent) of all outputs submitted by an institution meet the requirement [of OA compliance].” I would emphatically reject the latter: any such quantification is wholly arbitrary, and ignores variations in disciplinary mix across institutions. But what I find more disturbing is the presumption that in monographs as in papers OA is the inevitable and desirable future. My own book The Coasts of Bohemia, published in 1998, has now sold over 14,000 copies. I very much doubt it would have done so had it not had the distribution and publicity machinery of Princeton University Press behind it. Simply to dump a text in a repository is not, in and of itself, to widen public access to the products of academic research. In the humanities, at any rate, if OA drives such presses out of business, it will be the public that is the loser because our writings will be languishing in repositories, to be read only by specialists, instead of being actively marketed by knowledgeable and committed publishing houses.
8. Finally, I believe there is disingenuousness right at the heart of this proposal. The REF purports to be an exercise that assesses the quality of research being produced in UK universities, and as such determines QR funding. It has been a mantra of the REF in all its previous indications that quality is evaluated independently of venue of publication—were it not, panels would not have to read outputs and evaluation could all be done on the basis of bibliometrics alone. HEFCE is now proposing to use the REF for another purpose entirely, that of furthering the cause of Open Access. Irrespective of the intrinsic merits of the latter, to exclude from the REF all research that is not published in OA-compliant journals, no matter how excellent it is, or how internationally eminent the venue in which it appears, is in flagrant contradiction to the stated aims of the REF itself. Instead of a framework intended to facilitate research excellence it threatens to become a disciplinary tool designed to force academics to publish their work not in the best or most appropriate international venues for their discipline, but in venues that advance an unrelated political agenda. This is a bullying and shortsighted travesty of everything HEFCE stands for.
Derek Sayer, FRHistS, FRSC
Professor of Cultural History, Lancaster University
Professor Emeritus (Canada Research Chair), University of Alberta
March 3, 2013
The HEFCE document to which I am responding may be accessed at: http://www.hefce.ac.uk/news/newsarchive/2013/name,78750,en.html