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].