Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Open Access and the Research Excellence Framework: Strange bedfellows yoked together by HEFCE

When the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced its open access policy last March the news was greeted with great enthusiasm by OA advocates, who view it as a “game changer” that will ensure all UK research becomes freely available on the Internet. They were especially happy that HEFCE has opted for a green OA policy, believing that this will provide an essential green component to the UK’s “otherwise one-sided gold OA policy”. The HEFCE policy will come into effect on 1st April 2016, but how successful can we expect it to be, and what are the implications of linking open access to the much criticised Research Excellence Framework (REF) in the way HEFCE has done? These are, after all, strange bedfellows. Might there be better ways of ensuring that research is made open access?
Yoked together
What OA advocates particularly like about the HEFCE policy is that in order to comply researchers will not have to find the money needed to pay to publish in gold OA journals (as they are asked to do with the OA policy introduced by Research Councils UK in 2013). Rather, the HEFE policy states that only those papers that have been deposited in an open repository (on acceptance) can be submitted to REF2020, and that it is agnostic on whether researchers opt for green or gold.

HEFCE assumes that since no UK academic will want to risk not being submitted to the REF, they will ensure that copies of all their peer-reviewed papers and conference proceedings are made freely available on the Internet, regardless of whether they publish in OA or subscription journals. Not being submitted to the REF can have serious consequences for a researcher’s career.

Will HEFCE’s assumption prove right? At the time it announced its policy the funder cited some research implying that compliance levels will be very high. As it put it, “Our analysis of a sample of journal articles and conference proceedings submitted to the current REF shows that authors could have achieved 96 per cent compliance with the access requirements in this policy, had the policy been in place for REF2014. The remaining 4 per cent of outputs would have remained eligible for submission to the REF as exceptions.”

Does this mean that we can anticipate that 96% of journal articles and conference papers produced by UK researchers will become freely available on the Internet? I explore this and other issues in the PDF file linked below.

Some of the points I make are as follows:

·         There are a number of reasons to believe that the HEFCE policy will not make as much UK research freely available as OA advocates anticipate, not least because the number of researchers submitted to the REF is surprisingly low. In addition, the excessively punitive nature of the REF may be likely to alienate researchers from open access more than endear them to it.

·         By tying open access compliance to the REF, HEFCE has opened the door for university administrators to appropriate OA for their own ends. As such, the HEFCE policy can be expected to increase the bureaucratic scrutiny that UK researchers are subjected to, and encourage ever greater micromanagement. This is likely to further alienate researchers from open access.

·         Between them the RCUK and HEFCE policies look set to be extremely costly to manage and police. This will inevitably see money that would otherwise be used to do research and hire new researchers siphoned away to pay administrators, and to cover management overheads.

·         As things stand, historians of the open access movement may be inclined to conclude that UK OA advocates made a strategic error in seeking to co-opt government to their cause, overlooking the fact that government has its own agenda, and so would inevitably seek to capture and mould open access to fit that agenda.

·         Specifically, the HEFCE policy needs to be seen in the context of the UK government’s neoliberal agenda, an agenda that has become increasingly focused on commodifying higher education, and now seems intent on encouraging excessive commodification of the research produced in universities as well.

·         Meanwhile gold open access is being appropriated by publishers, with the apparent blessing of the UK government. As a result, publishers are migrating their journals to an open access environment on their own terms, and in a way that locks their current profit levels into the OA environment, even though those profits are universally held to be unacceptably high.

·         OA advocates have always argued that open access is inevitable and optimal. If that is right, then the issue is not whether open access will become a reality, but how and when it will. So the key question is this: how does one create a culture in which openness is viewed as the norm? Is it better to try and win hearts and minds by engaging people in a debate about open access, telling them about the benefits, and creating incentives to encourage them to embrace it? Or is it better to try and force them to embrace it by tying it to punitive regimes that end up excluding the majority, and micro-managing everyone to a standstill.

·         Green OA advocates insist that compulsory policies are essential, since they are the only way of getting OA repositories filled. As such, the HEFCE policy is modelled on the much-celebrated OA policy introduced in 2007 at the University of Liège. This was the first policy to make deposit in an institutional repository a requirement for researcher evaluation.But was it the right model for a UK funder like HEFCE?

·         An important issue with the HEFCE policy is that the principles inherent to the OA movement are those of sharing and egalitarianism. By contrast the REF is built on the principles of exclusion, elitism and punishment. These are strange bedfellows, and we need to wonder how the elitism of the REF can be viewed as compatible with the idealism of open access.

·         Is compulsion really essential? There is, after all, an alternative green OA model — the so-called Harvard model. This is a voluntary approach. It is worth noting that although Harvard’s repository (DASH) does not currently boast as many deposits as the University of Liège’s ORBi repository, it is nevertheless growing at an exponential rate, and it experienced twice as many downloads as ORBi last year. Is not the ultimate test of a successful repository the number of downloads, not the number of uploads?

·         OA advocates would rightly argue that there is a limit to what a comparison of just two OA repositories can tell us. After all, they might say, there is no shortage of universities with weak OA policies and empty repositories. While this is true, it points to the fact that open access advocates in those institutions have failed to make the case for OA to their peers. It is for this reason that they have turned to funders and governments to force OA on their colleagues. This could turn out to be a dangerous game to play.

·         Open access advocates can rightly boast today that they are persuading more and more funders and governments to force their peers to embrace OA. But this is not so much a victory for advocacy as a victory for top-down compulsion, and in many cases it is likely to lead to a further erosion of researchers’ rights.

To read the full document please hit the link here [29 page pdf].


Bernard Rentier said...

Considering the huge difference between Harvard and Liège in terms of scientific production (let's be humble!), counting numbers of deposits may be poorly relevant. Compliance rates could be more indicative (i.e. among the articles found in repertoires such as WoS and Scopus, for instance, in the repository, how many are present with the full text in the institutional repository. Only full text should be eligible.)

Nick Sheppard said...

Hi Richard - You are certainly right that gold has been appropriated by publishers and in the course of my own OA advocacy at a non-research intensive University, I am at pains to emphasise the reasons *why* HEFCE have introduced their policy which I would argue has been necessitated by the Finch and RCUK emphasis on gold and the concomitant and entirely unsustainable costs, vastly more than those associated with administering repositories and green. It is also gold, I would argue, rather than green that should be seen in the context of UK government’s neoliberal agenda. We may well all have misgivings about the REF but I have been promoting self-archiving for the best part of a decade, with limited success, and I certainly welcome the increased awareness that has resulted, from Finch and RCUK, but especially HEFCE, among academics and, crucially, the Top Brass.

My own and many institutions are formulating policies and mandates that require deposit of ALL peer reviewed outputs on the basis that, to echo Charles Oppenheimer, we won’t know what will be returned to the REF. Quite how effective such policies will be remains to be seen of course; perhaps I'm a naive idealogue but I see the HEFCE policy more as a tool to derail academic inertia and the awareness of the academic publishing racket has never been higher, with academics once simply frustrated by paywalls, increasingly aware of the huge sums of money solicited for APCs and spent by their libraries on subscriptions.

Yes there is still a long way to go but I genuinely think we are moving towards a culture where openness is seen as the norm and as far as possible I try to advocate not from a position of bureaucratic scrutiny but by emphasising the benefits of an open infrastructure of repositories which are increasingly integrated through the work of Jisc and others with initiatives like CORE, IRUS-UK, the Open Access Button and various flavours of alternative metrics.

Stevan Harnad said...


Inspired by principles and scruples that I admire and share, Richard Poynder, the faithful chronicler of the travels and travails of OA, alas seems lately to have tumbled into a conspiracy theory where I cannot follow.

Richard's long and thoughtful article, "Open Access and the Research Excellence Framework: Strange bedfellows yoked together by HEFCE," is not about OA. It is a critique of REF, i.e., of research ranking, of metrics, and of the "corporate university," together with a stout defence of academic freedom.

But all of this has next to nothing to do with OA. OA is only drawn in at all because HEFCE has made deposit in an institutional repository (not OA!) a precondition for eligibility for REF 2020.

One can be sceptical about the REF, about research ranking, about metrics, and about the corporate university (as I, for example, am), as well as a defender of academic freedom, without sharing Richard's implication that there is some sort of guilt by association here -- that OA has somehow sullied its bona fides and raison d'être by allowing itself to be drawn into a Faustian pact with the Evil Empire!

(The irony that the Evil Empire should be the Academy will not be lost on those who have been following OA's long uphill battle, in which the Enemy has usually been thought to be the publishing industry. But in fact conspiratorial theories impugning the Academy have a log pedigree too: See the postings of James Ransdell already in the first year of the American Scientist Forum in American Scientist September Forum of 1998 -- which went on to become the American Scientist Open Access Forum and the the Global Open Access Forum, of which Richard is now the moderator!)

I will not defend research ranking, metrics or the corporate university. And I am pretty sure that it is as obvious to Richard as it is to me that however much the REF itself might be considered an assault on academic freedom, requiring that submissions to REF take the form of repository deposits -- rather than, say, hard copy or email -- is not in itself an assault on academic freedom any more than requiring that course marks or CVs be submitted online rather than on paper (though I will say a bit about ease and speed of deposit in a later posting).

Meanwhile let me immediately say something in praise of HEFCE, and hence of REF, in my next posting: (cont'd)

Stevan Harnad said...

HEFCE Facilitates Convergence and Compliance for All Complementary OA Policies.

Given that REF 2020 is to take place, such as it is, for better or worse, just as it has taken been taking place for decades now, it is simply wonderful that repository deposit has been chosen by HEFCE as the mode of submission, and even more wonderful that it is repository deposit immediately upon acceptance that is required for eligibility for REF 2020, not at some later, vaguer point in the publication cycle. For although immediate deposit certainly is not immediate OA, it is the policy condition that has been shown to maximise compliance with OA policy, and to generate the most OA, the soonest. The OA generator is in fact not HEFCE/REF but the RCUK and EC Horizon 2020 OA policies, along with universities' OA policies. HEFCE, however, with its immediate-deposit requirement for REF 2020, has given the RCUK, EC and university OA policies an enormous helping hand toward harmonizing, aligning, and simplifying their policies, while also helping to incentivize compliance with them. (Yes, incentivize: the REF burden may be a stick, but repository deposit itself is a carrot, reducing effort and expense. And of course the REF top-sliced funding is also a carrot!)

(In a later posting will also have something to say about Richard's "scepticism" concerning the repositories' copy request Button that allows all those immediate-deposits to be immediately accessible, as well as about the time it takes to deposit, the proportion of papers and researchers submitted to REF, "compulsion/coercion," cost, compliance, complexity, carrots, sticks, "ratchets," embargoes, elitism, "monetizing," impact, metrics, uploads, downloads, persuasion, Harvard, books, and, above all, time.)

Anonymous said...

The choice of 'anonymous' says all you need to know about Academic Freedom for scholars employed in universities in the UK.

The Open Access policy foisted upon academics by REF2020 means that:

- Accepted Versions of information comes out with a different layout which means the pagination is no longer identical which means that cross-referencing information is becoming more difficult, indeed returning us to the medieval reality of alternate variants of the same manuscript. Granted this is already happening to some extent outside the REF's jurisdiction, but for scholarship it is a further - and important - step in the wrong direction.

- Open Access is fine in principle but its implementation at university level is made at the expense of individual authors, both financially and - just as importantly - personally. As opposed to funded team efforts or commissioned pieces of writing, the typical scholarly output of an academic in the Arts consists of their own personal work (nothing in my own employment contract says any different - nor should it). That an employer should use their directing power to appropriate the employee's property is as law-breaking as if they were to make a consideration of continued employment the handing over of the employees' sofa in their living room at home. Both are still the personal property of the citizen irrespective of the difference of the ease of duplication of the written word as opposed to sofas.

Make no mistake, this is the institutionalisation of theft justified by a Robin Hood argument that it is for the greater good. Yes, access to knowledge should be as wide as possible, but not at the expense of those who worked hard to create that knowledge. This dis-incentivises scholars and will dis-incentivise smaller independent publishers. The truth is UK universities have allowed themselves to pay higher and higher payments to established publishers over the years based on a perceived cachet or prestige. They should contest the publishers by supporting their own university presses when publishers' fees become too exorbitant not by penalising their employees.

The modus operandi of the REF of HEFCE etc. reward universities but disenfranchises the individual contributions for the scholarship, we are becoming indentured fearful servants rather than independent free-thinking academics. Success in the REF only faintly benefits the academics taking part. Many academics carry out and disseminate research because they want to, now they are well on the way to become intensive factory 'hens' producing more and more volume of work which of course will be for the most part repetitive and unimportant and below the best quality. More does not necessarily mean better unless one has the time to comb through the myriad re-inventions of the wheel which are on offer as knowledge. It is not for me or for anyone to decide what may or what may not be written and published, but the role of academics as guardians of standards is fast disappearing as teaching, administrative and REF obligations hack away at their time ...

There are three parties involved in outputs for the REF - authors, publishers and universities. Some larger publishers have undoubtedly exploited the universities' pressing need for competitive advantage, now it is the universities and the 'well-meaning' bureaucrats of government educational agencies which are exploiting academics as employees ...

Charles Oppenheim said...

If an employee creates a work as part of their employee duties, then UK law states that in the absence of an explicit contract to the contrary, the employer owns the copyright. So the fact that "anonymous"'s contract says nothing on the topic means that this default position applies. So the employer is perfectly entitled to decide what is to be done with that output. Whether they CHOOSE to do so is another question altogether, and in my view should be a matter of mutual discussion between the employer and employee representatives, but the assertion by "anonymous" that the individual owns the copyright in employee-created works is simply incorrect in UK law.

Simon Bains said...

Two observations/questions:

1) On Anonymous's reference to 'law-breaking' appropriation of property, does this not depend on the terms? If you have signed a contract which gives your consent to the university exercising rights over outputs created as part of your employment, this is not theft. Many university IP policies claim non-exclusive rights in this way. Importantly, the author retains copyright. I don't see how this is law-breaking.

2) I'm a fan of the Harvard approach, which, it seems to me, is a way to implement Green OA without making the lives of our researchers unnecessarily difficult by asking them to enter into discussions with publishers about amending copyright transfer agreements, or to try and understand multiple external OA mandates. However, I wonder how much this can be defined as 'voluntary'. The policy statement is clear:

"...each Faculty member grants to the President and Fellows a nonexclusive, irrevocable, worldwide license to exercise any and all rights under copyright relating to each of these articles, in any medium, and to authorize others to do the same, provided that the articles are not sold for a profit."

It doesn't say that each faculty member can decide whether they want to, or not. It's only voluntary in the sense that a policy waiver can be requested if a publisher will not consent to accept a paper on these terms. My understanding is that the number of such requests has been very low at Harvard.

Richard Poynder said...

On the question of whether Harvard's open access policy is voluntary or compulsory:

In 2009 Harvard's Stuart Shieber wrote on his blog, "Funders and governments can mandate open access because they can, in the end, refuse to fund noncompliers. They have a stick. All a university, school, or dean has, in the end, is a carrot."

And in 2012 he said of the Harvard policy: "It’s not that we didn’t make it mandatory, it’s that you can’t make it mandatory."