REF 2020 open access rules not ‘scary’, forum hears

Reassurance and concerns stated over new framework’s requirements

The proposed open access requirements for the 2020 research excellence framework are not nearly as “scary” as many people suppose, a conference has been told.

The plans, on which a consultation closed on 30 October, propose that 75 per cent of publications submitted to the 2020 REF must be open access following set embargo periods, likely to be a year for the sciences and two years for other disciplines. That percentage would fall to 70 per cent for the social sciences and 60 per cent for the humanities.

Adam Tickell, provost and vice-principal of the University of Birmingham, last week told the Open Access Futures in the Humanities and Social Sciences conference (for which Times Higher Education was the media partner) that if all papers submitted to the 2014 REF by Birmingham academics that could have been made open access under current journal rules had been, the university would be “nearly” compliant with that policy already.

Professor Tickell, who was also a member of the Finch group on open access, pointed out that neither the REF policy nor the updated policy of Research Councils UK contained any “practical preference” for journal-provided gold open access – which, as it often requires the payment of a fee, has sparked concerns about where funding would come from – over repository-provided green open access.

He denied that universities’ control of RCUK’s block grants for the payment of article fees could allow them to impose constraints on where academics could publish. “I know of no university that would seek to do that,” Professor Tickell said.

Peter Mandler, president of the Royal Historical Society and professor of modern cultural history at the University of Cambridge, rejoined that even if managers did not seek such control, their control of the funds would give it to them anyway.

Professor Mandler, who has been an outspoken critic of RCUK’s open-access proposals, said he supported the principle of open access, but warned that imposing a universal policy formulated with the sciences in mind would discredit that principle in other disciplines, where it “doesn’t work”.

He had a particular problem with RCUK’s requirement of a Creative Commons CC‑BY licence, which permits all forms of reuse subject to proper attribution. This “propagandises for plagiarism” by indicating to students that it is permissible for them to “mix” scholars’ words with their own in essays, he said.

But David Sweeney, director of research, innovation and skills at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said REF-related proposals do not mandate CC‑BY. He said there was a “long road ahead” in addressing licensing, and it may not be part of Hefce’s final proposals, due next March.

He said those proposals were deliberately framed to avoid the “thicket of problems” critics have raised with open access, allowing maximum progress to be made.

Mr Sweeney confirmed that the compliance targets were “intended not to be scary”. An alternative to percentage targets would be to require all REF submissions to be open access, subject to certain blanket exceptions.

But he favoured percentage targets, suggesting that an exception for all papers published in international journals, for instance, would not sit well with international moves towards open access.

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