REF may push players towards open goal

But publishers dismiss Willetts’ suggestion as not a ‘game changer’. Paul Jump reports



Credit: KobalThe more, the merrier: Willetts says defending the subscription model was ‘the wrong battle to fight’


Open-access publications may receive favourable treatment in future research excellence frameworks, funders have suggested.

The idea of using the REF to encourage moves to open access was mooted last week by David Willetts, the universities and science minister.

In a speech to the Publishers Association, Mr Willetts restated his determination to see publicly funded research become freely available. He pledged not to destroy publishers’ business models but warned that trying to defend the subscription model was “the wrong battle to fight”.

He suggested that open access “could be among the excellence criteria for qualifying articles” for REF rounds beyond 2014.

A spokesman for the Higher Education Funding Council for England said that Mr Willetts was referring to a proposal being considered by the funding councils to require articles submitted for the REF to be freely available “as far as possible”. Hefce will publish its proposed approach in June.

Stephen Curry, professor of structural biology at Imperial College London and a prominent advocate of open access, described Mr Willetts’ speech as a “powerful declaration of principle”.

An explicit requirement for all REF-submitted papers to be open access would be an “extremely powerful” driver of academic behaviour, he said. It could even prompt high-prestige journals such as Nature and Science to make the transition - particularly if other countries responded by imposing their own open-access mandates, he added.

Mr Willetts acknowledged that a unilateral move to open access could result in the UK losing out financially because it hosted a far larger proportion of the world’s journals than it did of the world’s libraries - from which journals derive the vast bulk of their income under the subscription model.

But he was encouraged by moves towards further open-access mandates in the US, he said, and he was discussing the issue with the European Commission to encourage multilateral moves.

Graham Taylor, director of academic publishing at the Publishers Association, said the UK’s relatively small proportion of global research output meant that any REF-related mandate would not be a “game changer” by itself in terms of driving publishers towards open access.

But he said that publishers would be content with a “leveraged acceleration” of moves towards author-pays open access (the “gold” model) - provided that funding to pay the associated article fees was in place.

What publishers would not accept, Mr Taylor made clear, was Research Councils UK’s suggestion, in its draft new open-access policy, that authors could choose instead to deposit their papers in open-access repositories within an “overly short” embargo period of six months after publication.

The association’s proposal to make digital journals freely available in public libraries was welcomed by Mr Willetts.

The minister said that the government’s proposals on open access would be finalised after the Finch Group, which he convened to explore the issue, reports next month.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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