A new open-access requirement in the UK

Scholars in the humanities sometimes ask themselves a question: what would it happen if universities will require everyone to publish in open-access? Would this help open-access journals become not only more accessible, but also more prestigious and highly-ranked than their commercial counterpart? A new requirement introduced in the regulation of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) has made a little but important step in this direction. This new rule establishes that the next REF evaluation will be restricted to outputs that comply to an open-access requirement ─ making sure “from above” that researchers will provide in a more systematic way for their works to be available online for free.

What is the REF
The REF is a periodic assessment of UK-based universities, whose results inform the distribution of a consistent portion of public funds to single universities. The last REF was in 2014, the next one is scheduled in 2020. To give an indication of its importance, £1.018 billion were distributed according to this parameter for the year 2013/14 in England alone.
A key element in the evaluation are publications: each faculty member at UK universities should submit up to four outputs for assessment. According to an estimation, the potential benefit of a single publication ranked “world-leading” (the highest possible result) would be of £20,000 of additional funds for each of the seven years following the assessment. It goes without saying that faculty members are under increasing pressure for a positive score at REF, and new appointments often depend on the potential of a candidate to ensure an excellent score with her publications and outputs.

The new requirements and their limitations
How can such a requirement work in practice? The question is not an easy one, considering the variety of platforms and media where research outputs can appear, the requirements of copyright, and the fact that in many fields the highest-ranked journals are owned by commercial publishers such as SAGE and Taylor&Francis. This latter circumstance, in particular, puts researchers in the difficult position of deciding if to submit their works to journals that might be less prestigious than commercial ones, or to pay the substantial fee required by commercial publishers to make their article available online for free.
After lengthy discussions, the HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) established a series of directions that should allow all researchers to comply. Firstly, given the problem of copyright, the requirements apply to articles and conference proceedings but not to books and book section. Despite journal articles being by far the majority of submissions to the REF, in fields such as art, literature, and history books are a most important form of output that do not need to comply with the new requirements. Secondly, and most importantly, researchers will be able to follow two different paths for meeting the requirement. The first path, nicknamed “gold open access,” refers to articles that are published immediately in open-access (i.e. in open-access journals or in commercial journals upon payment of the open-access fee or APC, Article Processing Charge. The second path, nicknamed “green open access” requires scholar to have the accepted manuscript of non-open-access articles deposited in a university repository no later than twelve months after publication. While this second option seems far from what we imagine open access could be, it is important to note that many researchers still fail to have their accepted papers published timely in such repositories, and that search engines such as Google Scholar make the contents of university repositories increasingly accessible.
The new rules will only apply to research outputs accepted after 1 April 2016. After this date, failure to act accordingly to the open-access requirements will make an output ineligible for the next REF.

A move from above
The introduction of open-access requirements has kindled a lively debate within UK universities. The financial weight of the REF forced universities and departments to tackle the issue most seriously, promoting information sessions and departmental meetings in order to clarify and discuss the new rules. The role of university online repositories was strengthened by this decision; arguably, the importance of making accepted manuscripts available online has never been so widely acknowledged at UK universities.
The open-access movement has advanced in the last years largely for the commitment of scholars who believe science is a public good that should be available online for free. Yet, the decision of the REF reminds us that decisions from above are needed in order to make further steps in this direction. Researchers are often in a weak position that does not allow them to publish open-access. Many young scholars need to publish in top-ranked, often commercial journals in order to have more chances to find a job. Senior scholars often work under similar constraints. In this context, universities and governments shall have a leading role in preparing the conditions for real change.

Simone Natale is a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Science and the Imagination, University of Westminster.