This is a very useful summary of recent debates on twitter and elsewhere on the UK’s RAE-REF research assessment exercises.  I’m reposting it for information.  Thank you Ian Pace!

Desiring Progress

I am writing this piece at what looks like the final phase of the USS strike involving academics from pre-1992 UK universities. A good deal of solidarity has been generated through the course of the dispute, with many academics manning picket lines together discoverying common purpose and shared issues, and often noting how the structures and even physical spaces of modern higher education discourage such interactions when working. Furthermore, many of us have interacted regularly using Twitter, enabling the sharing of experiences, perspectives, vital data (not least concerning the assumptions and calculations employed for the USS future pensions model), and much else about modern academic life. As noted by George Letsas in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), Becky Gardiner in The Guardian, Nicole Kobie in Wired, and various others, the strike and other associated industrial action have embodied a wider range of frustrations amongst UK-based…

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On March 6 Research Councils UK (RCUK), the umbrella organization representing all the major UK public research-funding bodies, published its latest policy document regarding Open Access (OA) publication.[i]   Despite the far-reaching nature of the proposed changes to the academic publication landscape and the many objections that have come from learned societies and other stakeholders in the university sector, the document gives no time for consultation. The policy will come into effect in less than a monthAll “peer-reviewed research papers, which acknowledge Research Council funding, that are submitted for publication after 1 April 2013 and which are published in journals or conference proceedings” must be “OA compliant.”

A journal is considered to be OA compliant either if it “provides, via its own website, immediate and unrestricted access to the final published version of the paper … using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence”  (Gold OA), or if it “consents to deposit of the final Accepted Manuscript in any repository, without restriction on non-commercial re-use and within a defined period” (Green OA).  In the case of Gold OA, publishers can charge the author an Article Processing Charge (APC).  With Green OA no APC is paid, but “RCUK will accept a delay of no more than six months between on-line publication and the final Accepted Manuscript becoming Open Access.”  For the humanities and social sciences (HSS), this embargo period will be extended—for the time being—to twelve months.

Lest there be any room for doubt, the document is clear that “Journals which are not compliant with RCUK policy must not be used to publish research papers arising from Research Council funded work” (para. 3.1[iv]). If the top journal in your field does not offer OA options—which it may not do if it is not UK-based—tough luck.

I have commented at length on many of the issues surrounding OA in my response to HEFCE’s call for advice on Open Access and the REF, which I posted on this blog on March 4, 2013.  As I said there, I am not opposed to OA as such, but I regard the way it is being railroaded through in the UK as a serious threat to both the quality of British universities and the academic freedom of researchers.  I shall not repeat those arguments here.  But some additional points might usefully be made.

1.  At present there is no restriction on where RCUK-funded authors may publish, but researchers can build the costs of APCs into grant applications.  Under the new regime not only will RCUK-funded researchers be banned from publishing in non-OA compliant journals; in a major change of policy, “Research grant and fellowship applications with start dates on or after 1st April 2013 are no longer permitted to include provision for Open Access publication or other publication charges in respect of peer-reviewed journal articles and peer-reviewed conference papers.” RCUK will now provide each university or eligible research institution with a “block grant,” from which APCs will be paid.  Each institution is required to establish “institutional publication funds, and the processes to manage and allocate the funds provided.” The document gives no guarantee that levels of funding available will be sufficient to meet demand for APCs, and provides no criteria for rationing publication funds should demand exceed supply.   “Institutions,” the document says, “have the flexibility to use the block grant in the manner they consider will best deliver the RCUK Policy on Open Access in a transparent way that allocates funds fairly across the disciplines.”

Thus all funds to support payments of APCs will be channeled through universities, which can determine how to distribute those funds and where necessary—as it almost certainly always will be—to ration them.  This may lead both to both discrepancies of policy across universities and consequent inequalities of opportunity to publish even among RCUK grant-holders.  It also provides an institutional framework within which criteria other than the quality of papers as judged by peer review will inevitably play an important role in determining whether or not research gets published.  By definition, any University Publications Committee is going to consist largely of people who are not experts in the relevant field, or even drawn from the same or a cognate discipline.  What criteria are they supposed to use to guide their choices?

2.  RCUK now explicitly recommend that “institutions should work with their authors to ensure that a proper market in APCs develops, with price becoming one of the factors that is taken into consideration when deciding where to publish.  HEFCE’s policy on the REF, which puts no weight on the impact value of journals in which papers are published, should be helpful in this respect” (para. 3.5[ii]).  In other words, where funds are tight universities may “encourage” researchers to publish not in the best journals in their field but the cheapest—and the “flexibility” given to universities to manage RCUK publication funds will allow them to reinforce this by withholding APCs from any authors who refuse to comply.  Not only does this risk harming individuals’ careers and the international standing of UK research, in ways that are too obvious to need spelling out here.  It is also an open invitation to cowboy “OA” publishers with no academic standing whatsoever to raid the UK market by offering cut-price outlets.  My mailbox has been full of invitations to publish in such dubious “peer-reviewed” venues already.

3.  “Monographs, books, critical editions, volumes and catalogues” remain exempt from the new RCUK policy, although we are told that: “RCUK encourages authors of such material to consider making them Open Access where possible.”  Before researchers in the arts, humanities, and social sciences heave a collective sigh of relief we might remind ourselves that every wedge has a thin end.  When RCUK first flirted with OA, back in 2005, it was also all about “encouragement.”  Humanists might also note the caveat in the fine print (para. 3.6 [ii]) on embargos within Green OA: the 12-month embargo period for HSS papers, it says, “is only an interim arrangement, and RCUK is working towards enabling a maximum embargo period of six months for all research papers.”

4.  Across the sector, the RCUK “aim is for 75 per cent of Open Access papers from the research we fund to be delivered through immediate, unrestricted, on-line access with maximum opportunities for re-use” (i.e. Gold OA) by the end of a 5-year “transition period.”  It is notable that no rationale is given for why this period should by five years—a target set despite the document’s recognition that much in the OA landscape remains uncertain, especially at the international level.  Should the UK turn out to be out of step with developments elsewhere, especially in continental Europe and North America, such targets for Gold OA may entail soaring costs for APCs in a context in which there has as yet been no compensating fall in journal subscription costs, compounding the financial problems that have underpinned the push toward OA in the first place.  As others have said before, the Gold OA model will only work economically if it is brought in globally.

5.  As it happens, there are already clear indications that the UK is significantly out of step with the United States—by far the most important player in the global academic game.  The Obama Administration’s recently announced OA policy differs from that espoused by RCUK (and HEFCE) in at least two major respects.  First, the form of OA adopted is Green OA, NOT Gold (which is discussed nowhere in the relevant US document!);[iii] second, the standard embargo period suggested is 12 months (as opposed to RCUK’s 6).  The document is explicit that this is a “guideline” that may be varied according to the “timeframe that is appropriate for each type of research” (p.3).

Nature comments: “it is now clear that US public-access policy is taking a different direction from that in the United Kingdom, where government-funded science agencies want authors to pay publishers up front to make their work free to read immediately. This immediate open-access policy involves extra money taken from science budgets to pay publishers.  NSF director Subra Suresh explained to Nature that he could not justify taking money out of basic research to pay for open access at a time when demand for the agency’s funding was high. With both the United States and Europe supporting delayed access to publications, the UK government looks increasingly isolated in its preference for immediate open access.”[iv]

6.  Finally, the US statement is also far more concerned with protecting the intellectual property rights of authors against the risks of abuse that some have argued are inherent in the CC-BY License, and explicitly charges research funding agencies to come up with plans “to help prevent the unauthorized mass redistribution of scholarly publications” (p. 3). Notwithstanding its acceptance that CC-BY may “more easily enabl[e] misattribution, misquoting, misrepresentation, plagiarism, or otherwise referencing materials out of context, which may be damaging to the interests of authors” (para. 3.7[iii]), RCUK remains committed to its introduction for (eventually) 75% of the papers resulting from RCUK support.

The White House has made clear that “The Obama Administration is committed to the proposition that citizens deserve easy access to the results of scientific research their tax dollars have paid for.”[v]   I have no quarrel with that proposition.  But to argue that just because university research is publicly funded it should therefore be made immediately and freely available for anybody to use more or less as they wish is a non sequitur.  It is rather like arguing that because government subsidizes the arts, all operas, concerts, and exhibitions should be free—or because the BBC is entirely funded by taxpayers’ money, anybody should be free to duplicate and use its TV and radio programs for whatever purpose they want.  Were we talking about films or music, of course, RCUK’s “Open Access” would be regarded as a charter for piracy.

[i] RCUK Policy on Open Access and Supporting Guidance, available at:  All quotations from this source unless otherwise noted.

[ii] More on Open Access: HEFCE brings out the big REF stick, available at:

[iii] Executive Office of the President, MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES, 22 February 2013, available at

[iv] White House announces new Open Access Policy, available at:

[v] Ibid.

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

“After 1905, Einstein’s miraculous year, physics would never be the same again. In those twelve months, Einstein shattered many cherished scientific beliefs with five extraordinary papers that would establish him as the world’s leading physicist … The best-known papers are the two that founded special relativity: On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies and Does the Inertia of a Body Depend on Its Energy Content? In the former, Einstein showed that absolute time had to be replaced by a new absolute: the speed of light. In the second, he asserted the equivalence of mass and energy, which would lead to the famous formula E = mc2.

On a Heuristic Point of View Concerning the Production and Transformation of Light … challenged the wave theory of light, suggesting that light could also be regarded as a collection of particles. This helped to open the door to a whole new world—that of quantum physics. For ideas in this paper, [Einstein] won the Nobel Prize in 1921.

The fourth paper also led to a Nobel Prize, although for another scientist, Jean Perrin. On the Movement of Small Particles Suspended in Stationary Liquids Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat concerns the Brownian motion of such particles … which Perrin [later] confirmed experimentally. The fifth paper, A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions, was Einstein’s doctoral dissertation, and remains among his most cited articles. It shows how to calculate Avogadro’s number and the size of molecules.

These papers … [are] among the high points of human achievement and marks a watershed in the history of science.”

From Einstein’s Miraculous Year: Five Papers That Changed the Face of Physics (Edited and introduced by John Stachel), Princeton University Press 2005.


Recent events in Britain threaten to change the landscape of academic publishing–fundamentally.  Flying the flag of “Open Access,” the UK government has accepted the 2012 Finch commission’s recommendation that all papers arising from publicly funded research should henceforth be available to the taxpaying public free of charge.  To achieve this the so-called “gold” model of open access will be used.

Currently most scientific and scholarly journals charge their authors nothing to publish, and make their money wholly through subscriptions, mostly to university and other institutional libraries.  Paying to publish is viewed with suspicion, as the hallmark of a “vanity press.”  But readers have to be members of a subscribing library to access these journals (even online) free of charge.  In this sense the publications arising out of most academic research, even where that research is publicly funded, remain behind a “paywall.”  On the proposed gold model of open access, journals will make their contents freely and immediately available online to all, and recoup their costs by charging authors an “article processing charge” (APC).  Both Finch and the government rejected an alternative “green” open-access model, in which there is no APC but papers are made freely available to the public after an embargo period of two-to-three years.  This green model is favored by most British learned societies in the humanities and social sciences, whose vigorous protestations have so far been ignored.[i]

While it is accepted that there will be a period of transition before all UK-based journals have become “open-access compliant”—to say nothing of journals (the majority) published in other countries—the government has made it clear that it wishes to see Britain taking the lead in the move to open access.  To that end, RCUK—the most important funding body for academic research in the UK—has already instituted (effective April 2013) “a requirement that results arising from their funding are published only in journals that are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access. Authors will therefore be expected to select from among such journals when choosing where to publish their research.”[ii]   HEFCE—the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which provides so-called QR funding to individual English universities on the basis of their performance in the periodic assessment exercises known as the Research Excellence Framework (REF)—has also announced that it intends implementing “a requirement that research outputs submitted to any future Research Excellence Framework (REF) should be as widely accessible as possible at the time.”[iii]  This is an extremely powerful mechanism for ensuring that individual faculty members publish in (gold) open-access venues, because exclusion from a university’s REF submission will blight their prospects for career advancement and could even cost them their job.

The average APC, according to the Finch report, will work out at around £1500 (US$2367) per paper—far more than the average faculty member can afford.  “Publication funds” will be set up within universities to cover costs of APCs, though it has been made clear that these will come out of the existing research budget.  Given the state of public finances there is no chance that the funds available will remotely cover the range of papers that come out of UK universities.  You do not have to be an Einstein to imagine the viciousness of the inevitable coming dogfight over these funds—between universities, between disciplines, between colleagues.  Nor does it require much imagination to identify the probable losers: early career scholars, especially those on sessional contracts, retired faculty, individuals working within the lower-ranked and worse funded schools.  Likely the humanities and social sciences, to the benefit of science and engineering.  And, quite possibly, anyone who fails to ingratiate themselves with their colleagues or makes a habit of getting up the noses of their superiors.

Notwithstanding the great inequalities between institutions—including huge differences in teaching loads (and therefore time available for research) and quality of library provision—a researcher’s chance of his or her paper being published has up till now depended entirely upon the journal’s processes of peer review.  If it meets a journal’s standards of quality it will get into print. Under this gold model of open access, not only will the range of publication venues be controlled (and if other countries do not follow the UK’s lead, severely restricted) by HEFCE and RCUK, disadvantaging UK researchers against colleagues elsewhere.  The universities–our employers–will now be the gatekeepers to the funds a faculty member needs in order to be able to afford to publish his or her work in HEFCE and RCUK-approved venues at all.  Given the importance of publication at every stage of an academic career, it is difficult to conceive of a more potent disciplinary mechanism—or a more serious threat to academic freedom.

One can see the attractions of enserfing academics, both for governments and university administrators.  It has only one drawback for any country that values research excellence: