More on Open Access: HEFCE brings out the big REF stick

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:,78750,en.html



    RCUK has now made it clear that authors are free to choose Green or Gold.

    That means authors no longer have to switch journals or pay for Gold if they do not wish to.

    But RCUK has done nothing to implement a compliance monitoring and verification mechanism for Green: Quite the opposite. RCUK has simply turned the entire Green option into an unmonitored, unverified, open-ended delay of 24 months or more. (The only compliance monitoring proposed so far concerns how institutions spend the Gold funds!)

    But the proposed new HEFCE/REF mandate has offered the remedy:

    To be eligible for REF, all articles need to be deposited in the author’s institutional repository immediately upon acceptance for publication (regardless of whether the journal is subscription or Gold, and regardless of whether the deposit is embargoed or unembargoed).

    This (by recruiting UK institutions in monitoring and ensuring immediate deposit) will repair the glaring gap in the RCUK mandate.

    And with the help of the institutional repositories’ faciltated “request copy” Button, immediate-deposit will also tide over researcher access needs during any embargo as delayed deposit could not have done.

    The only remaining perverse effect of the RCUK mandate is the obvious incentive it gives to subscription publishers (including those publishers who currently endorse immediate, unembargoed Green OA) to instead offer hybrid Gold and adopt and extend a Green OA embargo beyond the RCUK limit to increase the pressure on UK authors to pick and pay for the hybrid Gold option.

    But since the RCUK is not even bothering to monitor author compliance with its increasingly open-ended embargo limits, if the HEFCE/REF immediate-deposit mandate is adopted, this potential perverse effect of the RCUK mandate is somewhat reduced (though still not zero). Yet perhaps the reduced uptake of the UK Gold option, now that it is clarified that authors are free to choose — along with the HEFCE/REF immediate-deposit requirement irrespective of Gold or embargoes — will make the damage from the RCUK policy on international Green OA mandates negligible.

    Click to access HarnadHefceRef.pdf

    1. You are quite correct: the HEFCE requirement that all publications (not just those arising out of RCUK funding) must be OA-compliant in order to be eligible for submission to the 2020 REF gives OA teeth–at the end of the day by ensuring that any academic who chooses not to publish in RCUK and HEFCE approved venues does so at risk, ultimately, of losing his or her job. This is what I define as the end of academic freedom. Most of my piece was about restriction of publication opportunities for those not in permanent academic posts and restrictions on the academic freedom of those who are if the current RCUK/HEFCE proposals for OA go through. Like most OA-zealots–by which I mean not all who support OA, but those who support its introduction by any means and at any cost–you don’t address these points at all.

      1. 1. The RCUK/HEFCE/REF Green OA option does not restrict journal choice (hence “academic freedom”) in any way. Publish wherever you like, but deposit it immediately your institutional repository (even if you decide to comply with the publisher embargo on making access to the immediate-deposit immediately OA: embargoes will not be monitored, and the sprint-request Button will give authors the choice of providing almost-immediate OA whenever they wish.)

        2. Publish-or-perish already makes academic jobs contingent on making findings publicly accessible, by publishing them. The idea of OA is to make those published findings accessible to all now, no longer just journal subscribers.

        3. Mandatory Green OA is OA at no extra cost, either in finance (“Gold OA”) or in “academic freedom.”

        Better to examine the real details and inform oneself than to bemoan “zealotry,” blurrily…

      2. As I understand your point 1., reconciling compulsory Green Open Access with freedom to publish where you like seems to depend upon deceiving your publisher in cases where, for whatever reason, they do not accept HEFCE/RCUK limits on embargo period, or indeed any embargo period at all. As regards 2. there seems to me a world of difference between jobs being contingent on publication in academically respectable venues (which we all accept) and their becoming dependent on publication in venues approved by the RCUK/HEFCE/REF national academic bureaucracies. You also conveniently ignore the fact that those same UK bureaucracies’ clearly stated preference remains for Gold rather than Green OA, which was what most of my three pieces were actually about. I agree there is less threat to academic freedom (which, perhaps because I study Czech history, I don’t put in quotation marks) with Green than Gold, but how much threat remains depends entirely on the details. Insofar as I am prevented from having my work assessed for the REF if I publish it in venues that don’t accept the relevant HEFCE/RCUK OA regulations, then I am afraid my academic freedom IS restricted. We may debate whether that restriction is justified by a greater good, but please don’t deny the plain facts of the matter. Finally, mandatory Green OA may well come at an extra cost (including to academic freedom), if the result of its implementation is that small specialist learned society-type journals are driven out of business. If embargo periods are too short–or ignored because authors circumvent them in the ways you suggest–then cash-strapped libraries are unlikely to maintain subscriptions to such journals and they will fold.

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