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Copim's initial reflections on the REF 2029 open access policy for longform publications

A collectively authored response by the Copim community, in which we welcome the principle of open access by default in the REF 2029 open access policy for longform publications, but argue that it could provide clearer mechanisms for supporting Diamond open access publishing

Published onJun 04, 2024
Copim's initial reflections on the REF 2029 open access policy for longform publications

The Copim community would like to offer some preliminary reflections on REF’s recently announced consultation on its updated open access (OA) policy for the REF 2029 exercise, in particular relating to longform outputs. We welcome any comment and feedback ahead of the mid-June deadline for responses to the consultation.

As a community dedicated to enabling the funding, creation, and circulation of OA books, Copim is deeply invested in these issues. We are keen to promote a range of viable, alternative models to the established, dominant mechanisms for commercial OA monograph publishing. Partly this is about ensuring the infrastructures and funding mechanisms are in place to support the expansion of Diamond OA publishing. Book publishers that use Diamond OA models do not require authors to obtain funding for OA publishing fees — Book Processing Charges (BPCs), as they are often termed.

We make the following arguments:

  • We welcome the principle of OA by default that the draft REF 2029 policy proposes, arguing that it provides an opportunity for the UK higher education sector as a whole to begin to fully embrace more ethical, community-led forms of publishing in research and teaching.

  • We suggest that action needs to be taken to encourage open research cultures within universities and more widely. We are keen that debate around the specific guidance for OA outputs does not distract from the need to make a positive case for expanding OA publishing across the sector.

We also offer initial views on details of the policy for longform outputs. We argue that the policy should:

  • provide a clear roadmap for eliminating the use of embargoes before OA versions of a longform outputs are available;

  • not rely on Green OA to deliver an expansion of OA for longform publications, given the risks of creating poor quality experiences for readers and harming perceptions of the importance of OA as an approach;

  • more explicitly encourage and incentivise a transition to Diamond OA, as a more cost-effective and fairer route to the widespread adoption of high quality OA longform publishing than Gold OA;

  • include more explicit guidance about how the OA version of a text is linked and shared;

  • allow greater flexibility in which licenses are permitted.

In line with our emphasis on encouraging experimental forms of publishing, this text is enriched with additional information and context we have added as comments.

1. Welcoming the principle of OA by default

First, we are very pleased to see the draft policy strongly endorse the fundamental principle that OA should be a default option for longform publication in the UK sector. For too long, huge volumes of longform scholarly knowledge produced in the UK have remained closed off to the many potential readers that exist beyond the subset of academic institutions with the budgets needed to subscribe to and/or acquire paywalled/closed access content, with dominant publishing models — including dominant open access models — generating both local and global inequalities in scholarly publishing.

The draft policy also addresses an imbalance from the previous REF exercise. In REF 2021, only shorter form outputs — mostly journal articles, but also conference proceedings — were required to be made available on an OA basis. By including an OA requirement for longform outputs, REF 2029 will bring a measure of parity across disciplines. The previous set of requirements had the effect of keeping swathes of knowledge closed off from some disciplines more than others. A reader based outside the UK higher education system wanting to find the latest research from a UK-based scientist or a mathematician would be more likely to be successful than if they were seeking work from leading UK sociologists, historians, and philosophers, for example.

We still have concerns about the wider place of REF exercises in the UK higher education system. However, we realise that there is little prospect of such exercises losing their place in the UK system any time soon. As such, our intention is to focus on the opportunities that REF 2029 does present with respect to longform OA publishing.

2. Encouraging open research cultures

When REF announced the consultation on longform outputs, we were disappointed to observe how quickly some scholars (perhaps a minority, but a vocal one) bundled together their understandable fatigue with REF exercises with wider (often misconceived) objections to OA.

Our colleague Lucy Barnes recently addressed some of these views, which we summarise:

  • Open access does not inevitably require the payment of publication-specific fees by either authors or institutions. Copim has written about and provided resources to publishers on the diverse range of revenue models that exist for OA book publishing beyond fee charging and is actively working on collective funding models to provide further alternatives. This includes the Open Book Collective, which is currently supporting the work of 12 OA publishers and infrastructure providers by distributing financial support around supporting universities. It also includes the Opening the Future revenue model, which is being used by Liverpool University Press and Central European University Press to radically increase the number of books they can publish on an OA basis. We have also seen a number of other models launch, seeking to achieve some similar aims, for example JSTOR’s Path to Open and MIT Press’ Direct to Open.

  • Research has shown that making a digital book free does not prevent it from selling hard copies (as also explored in a 2013 report by Ferwerda, Snijder, and Adema).

  • OA books are used more than closed-access titles, with potential benefits for visibility and citation.

There are further reasons why OA is often the better option for academics looking to either disseminate their research or integrate OA content into their teaching:

  • OA books are globally accessible, helping address the entrenched inequalities in the global publishing system.

  • OA texts are born-digital and therefore offer unparalleled opportunities to experiment creatively with the form the scholarly book, as members of our Experimental Publishing Group are currently highlighting through ongoing pilot projects.

Researchers and writers will never embrace OA solely because they are required to do so as part of a national exercise. Any mandates need to be combined with efforts to recognise and respond to entrenched structures in publishing and higher education.

For that reason, we are keen to see wider actions to foster a culture of open research and community-governed OA publishing across UK higher education. The separate consultation on the ‘People, Culture and Environment’ part of the REF 2029 exercise may be relevant to this, and we will contribute as we can. In particular, we would like to see institutions being encouraged to demonstrate their investment in their open research environments, for example via their allocations of QR research funding, and to encourage the use of open content in teaching. Universities could also be asked to include their open research strategies as part of their People, Culture and Environment submissions.

In preparing this post we canvassed university library colleagues on their personal views. For example, our colleagues Dominic Broadhurst and Wendy Taylor suggested that institutions “develop coherent strategies and practical means of proving the ‘academic value’ of OA monographs to academics’ own careers and research profiles”. This could mean developing detailed open research strategies that support the legitimacy and academic value of OA monographs to an academic’s own career and research profile. We would also encourage institutions to reorganise budget lines to facilitate Diamond OA as a default option, as a way for them to be able to demonstrate their investment in high quality peer-review, copyediting, and production of longform OA publications rather than (embargoed) access to intellectual content.

3. Initial views on the REF 2029 OA Policy for longform outputs

Here follows an indication of our current views on the key elements of the policy. We expect to expand on this in our final response, taking on board any feedback we receive.

1.       “If not published as immediately open-access, in-scope longform publications must be made available to freely read, download and search no longer than 24 months after the date of publication”

We welcome the broad principle of OA by default for longform publications. However, this aspect of the policy does not mandate full OA at the point of publication, which Copim strongly advocates for. In our view, both academics and the wider public would benefit from eliminating the option for an embargo before an OA version of a longform output is available, allowing research to be circulated, engaged with and used/reused more rapidly.  If a transitional period is required, we would urge that there is a clear roadmap for the phasing out of permitted embargoes, ideally commencing during the current assessment period.

2.       “Should be the version of record or the author’s accepted manuscript”

This aspect of the policy is significant, in that it opens the door to so-called ‘Green’ OA (commonly involving authors submitting their final draft, tending to be a Word document or a PDF to their institutional repository) being presented as equally acceptable to full open access (i.e. where the version of record is published openly) for the purposes of REF compliance.

We see issues with this approach. As a group which includes a number of publishers, we know how much work is involved in cleaning and formatting final manuscripts prior to publication and how this is a much greater issue for longform manuscripts than for journal articles, for example. While Green OA performs an important role in archiving and preservation, allowing Green OA as a widely acceptable version of OA for REF 2029 runs the risk of creating poor quality experiences for readers and may harm perceptions of the importance of OA as an approach. It would also in many cases relegate the OA version of a manuscript to becoming a second-tier variant, as well as posing significant practical challenges for university librarians working to support research staff. In addition, this approach will in many cases cause delays in manuscripts being publicly available, unless the publisher allows the Green OA version to be available immediately without embargo.

Instead of relying on Green OA to deliver a widespread uptake of OA for longform research and scholarship in REF 2029, we would advocate that the policy more clearly incentivise, and articulate the preference for, the distribution of an OA version of record at the point of publication wherever possible.

To support this, the policy could more strongly encourage support and funding for Diamond OA models that aim to achieve this. Diamond OA offers a cost-effective and equitable way of expanding the circulation of OA longform versions of record.

This is in marked contrast to the alternative potentially preferred by large commercial publishers: a significant expansion of Gold OA publishing, in which publishers charge BPCs for a book to be published OA, commonly in excess of £10,000. This would become huge financial strain on the sector, while also creating new inequalities within the UK scholarly system.

3.       “[Should be] available on a publisher website, repository or other appropriate platform”

In our view, the policy should encourage OA digital versions of record to be not only freely available, but also made as visible, and therefore usable, as possible. In many cases, it would make most sense for this version of the text to be on a publisher’s own website or on a third-party platform as well as a repository. While we agree that the policy should permit any of the given options, we would advocate for more explicit guidance that the OA version of the text should be linked, shared, and marketed on the publisher website (and wherever else relevant) to have parity with the closed (e.g. print) version of the text.

4.       “(Preferably) licensed CC-BY, but will accept CC-BY-ND, CC-BY-NC and CC-BY-NC-ND”

We would advocate for greater flexibility in permitted licenses. Many of our publishers use ShareAlike licenses (e.g. CC-BY-NC-SA), partly to support the principle of widespread knowledge sharing. In our view, such licenses should be included as permissible, alongside alternative licenses, such as CopyLeft or CopyFarLeft, or collective conditions for reuse, for example CC4r. These can readily translate into Creative Commons frameworks. Enabling a plurality of licensing options would better support bibliodiversity, experimentation and boundary pushing within the sector.

5.       “There will be a tolerance band of 10% at unit submission level”

We agree that submission units should be allowed a tolerance band. We are keen to collaborate with institutions in making a positive case for OA. Allowing some tolerance will help offset some of the logistical difficulties that any such policy will inevitably create, at a time when many academic colleagues are already working at or above capacity. We do not have a strong view on whether the proposed tolerance level is optimal or not. However, we would suggest that the policy consider mechanisms to ensure that scholars earlier in their careers and/or employed via precarious employment contracts (e.g. on a fixed term) are provided with greater scope for tolerance within unit submissions than their more securely employed colleagues. Similarly, consideration should be given to how to ensure equity across the sector, given a flat tolerance percentage may disadvantage smaller institutions submitting only a small number of longform publications.

6.       “Can exclude third party materials, if licensing can’t be obtained”

As a group including publishers with experience of attempting to negotiate licenses with third parties, we understand the challenges of doing so in some cases. However, we would encourage the policy to consider mechanisms to ensure that such provisions are used only in circumstances where it can be clearly demonstrated that alternative options that do not require third party licensing have been appropriately considered.

7.       Exceptions

The policy includes a number of potential exceptions. We will not dwell on these here. We would simply point out that the policy in its current form is forgiving in its approach. In our view, while exceptions may indeed be required in some instances, the policy could more strongly support OA by default and mechanisms to ensure a shift in cultures of scholarly publishing. Exceptions should be prioritised for certain categories of researcher, including those who are precariously employed or early career, given they often lack the flexibility of publication options that their more securely employed colleagues have.

4. Concluding reflections

The work required to change scholarly publishing in the UK and more widely should not be underestimated. We hope that whatever form REF 2029’s final OA policy takes, it becomes a prompt for institutions to creatively explore local approaches to delivering a fairer, more sustainable future for scholarly publishing alongside their pursuit of research and teaching excellence. And we hope they do this not just because they are compelled to but because they recognise that this is an urgent priority for the sector.

Header image by Eléonore Bommarton Unsplash

Copim Community:

Much discussion has, for example, been focused around whether the policy should extend to trade books. In our response to the previous UKRI OA Consultation, we argued that trade books, as well as text books, should be included in any open access policy.

Copim Community:

This is because in metrics-driven academic cultures, pressures to publish and concerns about publishing prestige are particularly acute amongst early career/precarious scholars, often leading them to feel as if they have less control over their publishing decisions and their approach to research assessment exercises in general. For example, a study of how different types of researcher felt about a Danish research assessment process (the Danish Bibliometric Research Indicator (BFI) showed that early-career researchers felt they had less capacity to resist its pressures.

Copim Community:

We addressed similar issues in our response to REF’s Open Access Review in 2020, in which we noted that “there are issues with CC BY-ND becoming the standard in this situation, as it would risk excluding reuse and remix of content, which lies at the heart of various groundbreaking OA experimental publishing projects such as Open Humanities Press’s Living Books about Life, its Photomediations: An Open Book, as well as punctum’s Making The Geological Now”.

Copim Community:

Our colleague Judith Fathallah has explored this in detail, arguing that a widespread expansion of Gold OA publishing, with the reliance on charging authors and/or institutions expensive BPCs, would be stultifying for the scholarly system and could exacerbate academic hierarchies.

Copim Community:

Since the REF 2021 exercise, we have seen BPCs emerge as the dominant funding model for longform OA publishing. This model for OA books is not sustainable for research institutions and their library and information services, nor is it possible for all, or even most, academic institutions to fund these at the necessary scale to support contemporary OA policies that include longform publications in their scope. These models raise questions of governance and transparency, with large commercial publishers often not open about how their publishing charges are constructed. We would also argue that there is a need for far greater community-led governance of the infrastructures of open access publishing.

Copim Community:

Two examples are our own initiatives, Opening the Future and the Open Book Collective (OBC). Opening the Future is a revenue model that is funding BPC-free OA book publishing while also broadening library collections through an affordable subscription to closed content. The OBC is expanding the membership schemes that have been pioneered by various scholar-led publishers and infrastructure providers. As these models are designed to support presses that are entirely or are endeavouring to move towards scholarly books being OA by default, they provide a model which offers a credible alternative to a reliance on Green OA, Gold OA, and/or embargo periods for longform publications.

Copim Community:

Our library colleagues have suggested that there are significant practical barriers to the widespread use of both institutional and subject based repositories for books. This includes concerns about copyright and authors’ rights to self archive manuscripts, how this in turn relates to rights retention policies given differences in book contracts as compared to journal licenses, as well as authors being unfamiliar with the practices involved in depositing longer form content in repositories. This raises questions about the manageability – amongst both academics and libraries – of a major expansion of this practice.

Copim Community:

As Martin Eve and Ross Mounce have noted, formal “dark” archiving services may not always offer the services that are assumed to be provided. It can be that by facilitating a decentralised, federated, preservation structure, institutional repositories provide a more robust and open archiving solution, where publisher policies allow. The benefits of such an open approach to archiving is currently being explored in the context of WP7’s work on the evolving Thoth Open Archiving Network.

Copim Community:

Authors are often highly inconsistent in their styling and referencing choices and the longer the output the greater this issue can become. Such issues are then compounded in the case of edited collections, where not only will different authors often vary significantly in their styling choices and adherence to house style guides, but also inconsistencies may extend to individual authors within a collection (for example where an introduction is co-authored and a chapter is sole-authored).

Copim Community:

Such work could, and should in our view, include funding initiatives working to proactively support a range of viable, sustainable, and more equitable pathways to OA. This in turn would support a more bibliodiverse scholarly system and in the longer term reduce costs across UK higher education, for the wider public benefit.

Copim Community:

A particularly egregious effect of the current system is that frequently research about particular communities, and especially those beyond the Global North, often becomes inaccessible to those same communities. Geoffrey Khan describes this as “a form of depredation and asset-stripping that benefited the career of academics but had no benefit for the communities themselves”.

Copim Community:

MIT’s review of its Direct to Open model is also revealing. For example, they note that “On average, our open access Humanities and Social Sciences books are used 3.75 times more and receive 21% more citations than their non-open counterparts” and that “Our open access STEAM books are used 2.67 times more and receive 15% more citations than their non-open counterparts, on average”.

Copim Community:

Certainly, more work is needed to encourage academics to choose to publish OA because it is a better and fairer way of doing scholarly publishing rather than because they must achieve compliance with funder rules. Copim is contributing towards this effort by reimagining and rebuilding the infrastructures that are desperately needed for more just and equitable publishing models to flourish.

Copim Community:

As a group including scholars and librarians based in UK higher education, many of us have direct experience of the pressures that REF exercises can result in. We acknowledge how REF has been involved in the entrenchment of audit cultures in universities and the fetishisation of excellence, with resulting significant impacts this can have on scholars’ publishing and job seeking practices. We also recognize and broadly accept the substantial critiques of such exercises that have been raised, given their tendency to deepen the logics of marketisation that are currently wreaking such havoc on the sector in the UK, as elsewhere.

Copim Community:

As Reggie Raju and Auliya Badrudeen have written about with respect to Africa and as as Eduardo Aguado López and Arianna Becerril García have written about with respect to Latin America. Such arguments have underpinned calls for greater bibliodiversity in scholarly publishing and the need for decolonial approaches to open access.

Copim Community:

There is some truth to the argument that research that is – at least in part – publicly funded, should be accessible to the wider publics who contribute towards this research via the tax system. Although, as Samuel Moore has argued, we may wish to consider such questions in relation to more precise understandings of the commons and practices of ‘commoning’. 

Copim Community:

Our recently published Experimental Publishing Compendium opens up the history and possibilities of how researchers can creatively explore the form of their longform publications. We have just funded three new pilot experimental publishing projects, adding to three previous pilots. Readers can also read Copim’s Books Contain Multitudes report, which outlines the possibilities of experimental publishing for scholarly communities.

Copim Community:

Many of the co-authors work on Copim’s Open Book Futures project. But some are involved in Copim in other ways, for example working in libraries that are currently supporting Copim initiatives. In particular with respect to colleagues working in universities, their contributions are in a personal capacity and should not be taken as necessarily representing the views of their employer.