HEFCE, the REF, Open Access and Journals in Politics, IR and Political Theory

UPDATE (8 September 2014): Lee originally wrote this as a guest post – providing some much needed concrete detail on journal open access policies – but is now with us for good.


Following the launch of HEFCE’s consultation on Open Access for any post-2014 REF, and the generally positive reaction to it here, I examined the potential implications of HEFCE’s proposals for journal publishing in Politics, IR and Political Theory. I wanted to know whether the serious threat in HEFCE’s earlier proposals – notably the rush for ‘gold’ OA and associated Article Processing Charges (APCs) – had been eliminated by a downgrading of the proposals to permit ‘green’ OA, by depositing a ‘final accepted version’ (FAV, i.e. post-peer review, but pre-type setting) into an institutional repository. I also wanted to see what embargoes journals placed on FAVs (i.e. how long after the ‘Version of Record’ (VoR) is published in the journal the FAV can be made public); what re-use was permitted (what sort of licensing); and also to compare this route with the ‘gold’ access favoured by the Finch Report and the RCUK policy. I also wanted to gather information that could be used as part of a ‘soft boycott’ of OA-resistant outlets.

To do this I selected 57 journals that broadly represent the ‘top’ journals in the three subfields. I used composite rankings from Google Scholar, the ISI Citations Index, and surveys of scholars where available, and got feedback on an initial draft. The list isn’t intended to be definitive, just to give us a better sense of where the ‘big journals’ in which many scholars aspire to publish actually stand on OA.

It is not easy to get this information. Policies can vary by journal, not merely by publisher, and their websites are often opaque on the issue of self-archiving, particularly in terms of licensing. This may change if, as seems likely, HEFCE forges ahead on OA; but publishers also need to be pushed to display clearer information. The exaggerated nature of the Finch Report’s estimate of UK HE’s market power to change publishing models is underscored by the fact that US journals tend not to provide the information I was looking for (my thanks to Sarah Molloy for help with this).

The results are presented below for Politics, IR and Political Theory (click to enlarge each image). There are a lot of complexities with various journals which are shown in the full spreadsheet of results which you can see here; the spreadsheet also lets you reorder the information by different criteria.

OA - IR

Journal Open Access Policies for International Relations.

Journal Open Access Policies for Politics.

Journal Open Access Policies for Politics.

Journal Open Access Policies for Political Theory.

Journal Open Access Policies for Political Theory.

Several conclusions can be drawn.

(1) Most importantly, Pablo and Meera were basically right: the threat of HEFCE rushing to a ‘pay to say’ approach with hugely detrimental financial consequences for universities and the potential for internal rationing of APCs, has been defeated, for now (although RCUK’s policies remain intact). Some journals, particularly in the US, don’t seem to support green FAV self-archiving, or have gold APC routes – this is a problem because they would be non-compliant with HEFCE’s proposals; so we will need to push for exemptions on this score. However, by and large, where they allow FAV self-archiving, none of the journals appear to charge a fee; HEFCE’s current proposals now intend to compel more researchers to do what they are already entitled to do. So long as this does not change, HEFCE’s proposals should not involve ruinous costs or lead to APC rationing.

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On Rejecting Journals

Kertesz - Man and Abandoned Books

Any excuse for an André Kertész image.

Yesterday, in an act of minimal defiance, I declined a request for peer review on the grounds that the journal was owned by Taylor and Francis, and therefore charges authors £1,788 per piece for open access, or imposes an 18 month restriction on repository versions. In the wake of the OA debate, this situation seems increasingly ludicrous: for the short term at least, an increase in journal profit streams, made possible by the sanctity of unpaid academic input. The principle (saying no to closed journal peer review) is not inviolable, but a reluctance to subsidise shareholders with free labour seemed an appropriate response to the current balance of forces.

So far so good, you might think, but there is a lingering issue of ethics. It was suggested, following a previous act of review rejection, that some hypocrisy might be at work. Am I not proposing the withdrawal of a service that others would perform for me without complaint? Since the infrastructure of the academy rests on the provision of reviews, and since academics benefit from having their published work certified, submission to any closed journal, without providing reviews to the same, is tantamount to parasitism. A use of colleagues’ labour without returning the favour, all easily accomplished in an accounting system that positively celebrates the anonymity of authors and reviewers.

The most forceful of open access advocates would point out at this stage that the answer to this dilemma is pretty straightforward: don’t review for closes access journals and don’t publish in them. Simply move your labour – writing, reviewing, editorial board-ing – as quickly as possible to the more open journals. The more of us who do that, the quicker the transition to proper open access will be. This is true, but it won’t quite do. For two reasons.

First, whatever is to be wished for, the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences currently lack open access journals prestigious enough to make submission to them a low cost option in the economy of reputation. This is a corollary of the market dominance enjoyed by closed journals: scholars are penalised if they step outside of this reputational system. This point that has been raised before, and clearly depends considerably on the exact field, and the national context. On the UK scene, even where academics stress that they themselves would never pre-judge a piece by publication venue, they usually hold that someone else (the Big Other of the REF, policy makers, ranking systems, managers) will, and so they are driven to conform in any case, thus becoming entangled in a chronic game of second-guessing. More clearly still, this disproportionately affects junior and precarious scholars, who have most to lose by moving outside a system still primarily functioning according to logics that precede them.

Second, and more crucially, journals are not just empty vessels, and are not interchangeable in content, editorial policy or audience. Continue reading