UK learned societies blast REF open access proposals for books

British Academy urges Research Excellence Framework leaders to pause open access plans as sector bodies highlight ‘crushing costs’

June 18, 2024
Man carrying lots of books
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The backlash against proposed open access requirements for the next Research Excellence Framework has intensified after numerous academic bodies – including the British Academy – warned the changes would damage humanities research by cutting off publishing opportunities.

In a letter to the heads of the four regional funding bodies that run the REF, published on 18 June, the British Academy states that proposals put forward for REF 2029 would have “significant likely consequences for the health of research in the UK were they to be implemented”.

Noting that long-form outputs, which would need to be made free-to-read within two years of publication under proposed new rules, are “an important mode of publication” for researchers in the arts, humanities and social sciences, the suggested changes may “distort and restrict the publishing options available for researchers, and be particularly damaging for those early on in their career”, says the letter.

“We also fear the proposals will further exacerbate the funding crisis for universities, a crisis which is leading to actions being taken which are impacting hardest on arts, humanities and social science subjects,” states the letter, which is signed by the academy’s president Julia Black and two of its vice-presidents, Lindsay Farmer and Simon Swain.

The academy, which is the UK’s leading learned society for the arts, humanities and social sciences, calls on funders to “pause the introduction of these proposals in order that further analysis and modelling can be carried out, including a full impact assessment”.

The British Academy’s letter has been released the day after the consultation deadline for the open access proposals. In its response, the academy criticises the REF’s plan to mandate open access for books submitted to the REF – with the exception of trade books – within two years. Instead, “any maximum embargo period should not be less than 36 months, and might well have to reach 60 months”, it suggests.

The REF’s open access policy “should not gamble with the future of the academic book publishing ecosystem by setting an embargo period of only 24 months”, it argues.

The academy’s submission, which is critical of most aspects of the REF’s open access proposals, comes after three senior University of Oxford research leaders urged REF chiefs to scrap REF open access rules in their entirety, warning that expanded requirements would cost Oxford at least £20 million in this REF round alone, and the UK sector “hundreds of millions of pounds”.

Meanwhile, the Royal Historical Society has criticised the REF’s plan for book publishing, which it claims “go too far, too fast”.

“We are concerned that mandating these proposals will alienate humanities academics, and their support networks, and risks delegitimising REF as a measure and reward of research excellence in the opinion of those it seeks to assess,” said the society in a statement, suggesting the “proposals for books are not mandated for the next research exercise; rather the next cycle is used to explore sustainable future models that increase access to high-quality research”.

Three bodies representing English literature – the English Association, the Institute of English Studies and University English – have also criticised the inclusion of scholarly editions in the open access plans, claiming the “cost of making these ‘gold standard’, multi-volume, collaborative outputs OA would be crushing for publishers and universities, making it unlikely they could be included in a REF return”.

“It is surely not the intention of this policy that lengthy, high-quality, transformative research should be outside the scope of REF,” they explain in their consultation submission.

Warning about the lack of sufficient funding to accompany the proposed plans, the bodies recommend that “longform open access publishing should thus only be encouraged in this REF cycle, and the essential funding and infrastructure put in place ready for the next”.

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