Getting Somewhere: HEFCE Proposals on Open Access for a Post-2014 Research Excellence Framework


This week, the UK’s Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) published their formal proposals for including an open access requirement in any post-2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF). Responses to this will be accepted until 30th October 2013. These proposals follow a pre-consultation letter and set of responses which were submitted earlier in the year (link to University of Cambridge response).

Following up our concerns about the policy raised over the last few months (here and here, further posts here) the present iteration represents a decent outcome on some of the details, not least because it defers quite a few of them. That these issues have been deferred does not mean that they do not matter; rather it means that the battles on them will be fought elsewhere – with universities, with journal boards, with learned societies, with publishers and their lawyers and so on. Moreover, there is no cause for complacency around the broader political economy of scholarly publishing, which remains wasteful, restrictive and inequitable on many fronts. And of course, the pernicious REF exercise itself, which this government signalled it would review, must be itself vigorously contested (more on this to come).

The Requirements

The proposals are to require that any REF-submitted journal article or conference proceeding published after 2016 must be made available in the final post-peer reviewed version from an institutional repository at the point of acceptance (or publication). This in line with the previous agenda of RCUK and others, and maintains journal exclusivity by accepting substantial embargo times on truly open (read: public) viewing of these deposited versions. So a paper “immediately” placed in an institutional repository may still not be viewable for up to 24 months in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (recall that this length of permissible embargo was extended in the face of publisher lobbying), although it may be possible to request papers directly from the author on an individual basis. This version of mandated open access is applicable only if the address line of the author is a UK HEI at the time of publication, and cases for exceptions can be made. HEFCE’s assessment that this should be broadly achievable under current provisions is reasonable, and represents a good path for opening up access to research under present conditions. From the perspective of maximising green OA, Stevan Harnad’s response is as ever highly incisive. Below are some reflections on the present state of play.

What Has Been Won and Deferred

First, the old green/gold battle is now (nearly) over, and with it the concerns that academics would routinely pay exorbitant author fees to have their research published. HEFCE does not require any proportion to be ‘gold’ and states that no preference will be applied in the assessment of research. All universities appear to be endorsing a ‘green-first’ policy (i.e. institutional deposit of a near-final version of the text), with author fees being paid only as a last resort to secure compliance. Particular journals and publishers will still exert market power in being able to set high author fees and long embargo periods, particularly in the short term, but these journals appear to be in the minority.

Although some publishers have been attempting to mislead their authors as to their actual rights to deposit for free by burying these conditions out of sight, universities should be able to clarify these on behalf of authors before any articles are submitted. Difficulties do remain, because the option of compliance via an author-pays route leaves open the possibility of journals retracting ‘green’ routes in future. Moreover, where funds do exist, there will be costs for universities in deciding who is sufficiently worthy of Article Processing Charges (APCs), and hierarchies between institutions (with some able to put more material out genuinely immediately in full Version of Record forms for interested publics). But the compulsion to pay threatened by a systematic APC model is no longer a threat.

Second, the licensing battle appears to have been deferred. This relates specifically to RCUK’s enthusiasm for a very permissive commercial, derivative re-use blanket licence to be applied to all research (CC-BY). Many scholars have responded with scepticism deriving from fears about re-purposing, inadequate attribution, royalty losses and dilution of the authorship, without any clarity over the exact benefits of the new licences, especially in arts, humanities and social science subjects. The current HEFCE proposals will allow authors and publishers to work within existing copyright and fair use provisions if they wish, which will likely satisfy the sceptics more than the enthusiasts. However, in the absence of any legal clarity about the actual applicability and impact of the new licences this seems a good outcome.

Third, prospective requirements for open monographs have been deferred. Anything other than this would have been pointless given the state of current infrastructure and understanding.

Fourth, a requirement for open data has been deferred, for similar reasons of infrastructure. It is of slight concern that the document still fails to recognise the highly differentiated characteristics of ‘data’ that different disciplines and researchers use, but this battle will be have to be fought later, if it is fought at all.

The consultation seeks responses on whether the requirement should be applied universally or as a percentage, and whether upon acceptance itself or publication. Harnad’s recommendations for a universal requirement upon acceptance are reasonable if the case-by-case exceptions are made generously in favour of protecting academic freedom and equality. It is vital for anything approaching genuine open access that ‘acceptance’ date be the metric. It is not unusual for years to pass from acceptance to final hard publication, and this ambiguity allows journals to retain still further exclusivity rights even once a piece is available online (pre-hard publication) in a Version of Record form. For example, one of us (Pablo) had a piece accepted in August 2011 which is still not out in hard copy, even though it has been available online first since February of last year. Add a 24 month embargo period to an example like this, and the effective embargo becomes four years. Depending on the backlog of articles, this could be even longer (and bear in mind here that we are not even talking about eventual access to the journal-formatted version, just to a ‘post-review’ one)

What Is Still To Be Fought Over At Large

The concerns we raised in our earlier papers on open access have not gone away, but now need to be fought on different terrains.

We still want the right to have the Version of Record as the version which is made open access. Most publishers will not agree to this but some will – for example this is the case with most Cambridge journals. Academics must pressure journals and publishers for this right, and urge journals to migrate to publishers who will enable the maximal author rights in this regard. This matters because all of the various concessions to publisher rights (embargoes, non-formatted post-review versions, having to specifically request an article from a repository, confusion over exact publication date) all erect barriers to easy public access. Researchers may be confident about the distinctions, but how many journalists, practitioners or concerned citizens are knowledgeable enough about the different iterations of a paper to know that yes, this here version is a reliable reflection of valid academic knowledge (leaving aside the vagaries of review and certification themselves). Equally, we should work for the minimisation of embargo periods, particularly those which do not protect learned society funding but only large publisher surpluses and editorial perks. Hard and soft boycotts and pressure on editors should be maintained here.

We must make sure that universities are allocating any funding that they have for publication fairly, and that these allocations are not interpreted as authoritative judgements of academic merit by those who are not in a position to give it. The best guarantee of this is for institutions to pursue a policy of funding publications as an absolutely last resort, based on the availability of money and nothing more. In fact, where possible, universities should spend their funds on alternatives to author fees rather than their payment. They are already entitled to do so to some extent with RCUK funds, which can be spent on open access initiatives and strengthening of repositories, as well as on APCs. Attempts to ‘cherry-pick’ authors and researchers to qualify for publication funds will be time-consuming, divisive, unjust and pointless. It may also produce research skewed towards the bureaucratic preferences of these committees and their personnel rather than the best research question. Yet some universities have announced just these policies. We must expose and challenge such policies where they exist.

Finally, we must keep collectively pushing for alternatives to the current publishing system, which continues to sell the products of our free labour back to us at extortionate prices. A non-profit and/or endogenised publishing system which hosts our journals at cost-price and is able to exploit economies of scale is the best guarantee of this in the long run. Various innovative independent projects are underway but UK universities and research libraries themselves need to make this a long-term collective institutional project that we ourselves own and run.

A Meera and Pablo joint.


15 thoughts on “Getting Somewhere: HEFCE Proposals on Open Access for a Post-2014 Research Excellence Framework

  1. Continued thanks to you both for providing such useful analysis and leadership on OA.

    My reaction to the proposals was rather more negative than this, so it could be that I have misunderstood something fundamental.

    As you say, HEFCE requires all articles to have their “final post-peer reviewed version” put into a repository, viewable subject to publisher embargoes. Your interpretation is that this solves many of the major issues around green/gold and APCs. I’m not sure why this is so. Surely it turns on the willingness of journals to *allow* this version to be put in repositories? If they refuse, APCs will still be required, all the problems of rationing APCs remain, and gold triumphs over green. It could be that I am ignorant – maybe most journals already permit this sort of archiving and could reasonably be anticipated to do so. Do we have any data on current journal acceptance of what HEFCE is demanding? Even if a significant minority of major journals do this, isn’t the problem still a very real one?

    I’m also a bit puzzled by the distinction between the “final post-peer reviewed version” and the “version of record”. My guess is that the former could be a Word document, of the sort one submits prior to typesetting, whereas the latter might be the final, typeset PDF. But if the only different is pagination (and perhaps proof reading), why is it still worth fighting for OA to the VoR? If all journals are anticipated to permit final-version green OA, what’s the real value-added of pushing for VoR?


    • On journals not allowing green, you’re right in principle (and I take it seriously as a future threat), but right now just about everybody that I’m aware of (CUP, Routledge, Taylor/Francis, Sage) who dominates ‘top IR’ is hybrid and compliant (which is to say they offer a choice between gold and green for authors *and* that their green embargoes are RCUK-HEFCE compliant). I can’t speak authoritatively on OUP and others, and there may well be an issue with US-centric publishers like University of Chicago Press, but broadly, green is viable in our field today. My guess is that this is part caution by journals, part genuine fear that they’d lose out on UK authors and attract boycotts if publishing with them became a pay-up-or-don’t-be-REF-able kind of deal. And of course they were successful in getting long enough embargo periods (up to 24 months in AHSS) for there not to be as much threat to their business model as might otherwise have been the case.
      On post-review vs. VoR you are also right! But nonchalance about VoR surrenders part of the ‘value’, which is the journal imprimatur, the final formatting, the correct page numbers, and so on, all of which are sufficiently part of respectable citation practice to make journals want to keep hold of it, even after embargoes. But it’s silly to proliferate versions unnecessarily and we should be allowed to post the most *authoritative* iteration we can, and that should also be what publics can access. Again, I think we’re relying a lot on people trusting or understanding that a repository word doc is the same essential product as the final-looking VoR. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s not nothing, and any barriers to confident access of final, certified material is a problem, even if it’s a problem of perception rather than content. I mean, try clicking links on existing rubbish repositories (SOAS and Bristol are repeat offenders) and see how many dead-ends you ed up in before you give up on reading a piece. Add in that some versions will be pre-review, some post, some VoR, some draft reply, some ambiguously ‘forthcoming’ and so on, and I think you get more confusion than is necessary.


      • Thanks for this. I think I will ask our library to review all the presses to see where they stand, because a lot hinges on this. I will post the results here, assuming they comply.


      • This information should be readily available through ROMEO/SHERPA already. I just haven’t done a recent full sweep and am writing this on the move. But you’re right, we should find a way to present the info for IR journals clearly once HEFCE finalise policy. Maybe on a soft boycott spectrum.


      • Yes – I suppose the minimum would be “blue” according to Sherpa rankings. For my own reasons I also want our library to cross-check these against where we actually publish – as this will have implications for whether we need APC funds and to develop policies around them. You’re right that it would also be useful to have an IR-specific list, not least to encourage a consistent “soft boycott”. Where is a good list of “top” journals that isn’t simply an ISI list that is overly US-centric and very narrow in a disciplinary sense?


      • We could do a compilation list aggregating several ‘rankings’: there’s now Google rankings, Journal Citation Report rankings, and also (I think most usefully) the survey-based rankings in the TRIPS reports. Each produces a different ordering (see, e.g. some of the surprises in the new Google ranks), but some kind of composite could probably be worked. Top 30? Top 40?


  2. Me again. Spoke with our OA librarian person. She has been in charge of securing OA compliance for various RCUK grants for many years so has a good overview. Unfortunately the situation seems rather more complex than suggested here. Apparently individual publishers generally do not have consistent policies across all of their titles; instead, specific policies vary considerably by journal and even within a journal depending on the kind of funding the research received. I’m pushing to see if we can clarify this in any way, because it should inform very strongly our view of HEFCE proposals, and the likely financial impact. I’m also going to draw up a list of journals to see what she can come up with for Politics/ IR as a discipline, just as something indicative.


    • This is my understanding too, although I’m pretty sure CUP policy is the same for all the IR journals, and that Sage is too. Taylor and Francis varies embargo by title, but for AHSS that seems to always mean 18 or 24 months, and the price seems universal. But any added value is good, but I’d be wary of reinventing the wheel, given how specific the journal-by-journal SHERPA/ROMEO data is.


  3. Does anyone know good sources of journal rankings for Political Science and, especially, Political Theory, that don’t rely on ISI? TRIPS is useful for IR, Google for PS and IR, but PT is excluded from both.


    • Looks as good as any approximation to me, and a good deal better than most (erases some of the crazy JCR inclusions which are either law or science journals). The underlying data is still whack. I couldn’t quite believe your tables so went and checked TRIPS 2011, and, yes indeed, UK scholars apparently rank EJIR 52nd (!) whilst Americans put Millennium 4th! Not all is lost after all! Would encourage others, perhaps with more political theory bent, to check too, but my feeling is that this is a perfectly justifiable portfolio to investigate in terms of policies and actively, publicly determining the best journals.

      Oxford University Press are taking over the ISA journals, but not until 2015, and they seem not to have settled their open access policy yet. Needless to say, a good decision on that opens up a lot of space, and their current rules don’t seem at all OA friendly.


      • Ah, sadly that’s not quite right re TRIPS, which asks respondents to identify influential journals, not to rank them. Thus, 52% of UK scholars think EJIR influential, while only 4% of US scholars view Millennium as such. So a high score is actually better for TRIPS.



    1. Funders and institutions mandate immediate-deposit (immediately on acceptance for publication) of the refereed final draft, in the author’s institutional repository, whether or not access to the deposit is embargoed.

    2. Implement the repository’s erint-request Button to allow individual users to request and authors to provide one individual copy for research purposes with one click each.

    3. Don’t worry about the publisher Version of Record, further re-use rights or Gold OA for now.

    Let universal immediate-deposit mandates plus the Button do their work and all the rest will follow. (Needlessly over-reaching instead will just delay the optimal and inevitable outcome for yet another decade.)


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