HEFCE’s new open-access policy for post-2014 outputs

The following post was published yesterday by Mike Taylor on his blog. It is reproduced here in full, courtesy of the CC BY license.

This morning sees the publication of the new Policy for open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework from HEFCE, the Higher Education Funding Council for England. It sets out in details HEFCE’s requirement that papers must be open-access to be eligible for the next (post-2014) Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Here is the core of it, quoted direct from the Executive Summary:

The policy states that, to be eligible for submission to the post-2014 REF, authors’ final peer-reviewed manuscripts must have been deposited in an institutional or subject repository on acceptance for publication. Deposited material should be discoverable, and free to read and download, for anyone with an internet connection […]  The policy applies to research outputs accepted for publication after 1 April 2016, but we would strongly urge institutions to implement it now.

There are lots of ifs, buts and maybes, but overall this is excellent news, and solid confirmation that the UK really is committed to an open-access transition. Before we go into those caveats, let’s take a moment to applaud the real, significant progress that this policy represents. For the first time ever, universities’ funding levels, and so individual academics’ careers, will be directly tied to the openness of their output. Congratulations to HEFCE!

Also commendable: the actual policy document is very carefully written, and includes details such as “Outputs whose text is encoded only as a scanned image do not meet the requirement that the text be searchable electronically.” It’s evident that a lot of careful thought has gone into this.

Now for those caveats:

The policy will not apply to monographs, book chapters, other long-form publications, working papers, creative or practice-based research outputs, or data.

This is a shame, but understandable, especially in the case of books. I would have hoped that chapters within edited volumes would have been included. Butthe main document notes that “Where a higher education institution (HEI) can demonstrate that it has taken steps towards enabling open access for outputs outside the scope of this definition, credit will be given in the research environment component of the post-2014 REF.”

Next disappointment:

The policy allows repositories to respect embargo periods set by publications. Where a publication specifies an embargo period, authors can comply with the policy by making a ‘closed’ deposit on acceptance. Closed deposits must be discoverable to anyone with an Internet connection before the full text becomes available for read and download (which will occur after the embargo period has elapsed). Closed deposits will be admissible to the REF.

I would of course have wanted all embargo periods to be eliminated, or at the very least capped at six months as in the old, pre-watering-down, RCUK policy. But that was too much to hope for in the political environment that publishers have somehow managed to create.

More positively, it’s a good sop that deposit must be made on acceptance — not when the embargo expires, or even on publication, but on acceptance. These “closed deposits” are like a formal promise of openness, with an automated implementation. We don’t have good experimental data on this, but it seems likely that this approach will result in much better compliance rates than just telling authors “you have to come back six to 24 months after publication and make a deposit”.

Third disappointment:

There are a number of exceptions to the various requirements that will be automatically allowed by the policy. These exceptions cover circumstances where deposit was not possible, or where open access to deposited material could not be achieved within the policy requirements. These exceptions will allow institutions to achieve near-total compliance, but the post-2014 REF will also include a mechanism for considering any other exceptional cases where an output could not otherwise meet the requirements.

The exceptions encourage weasel-wordage, of course, and some of the specific exceptions listed in Appendix C are particularly weak: “Author was unable to secure the use of a repository”, “Publication is print-only (no electronic version)”, and the lamentable “Publication does not offer a compliant green or gold option”, which really means “HEFCE authors should not be using this publication”.

But when you read into the details, this approach with specific exceptions is actually rather better than the alternative that had been on the table: a percentage-based target, where some specific proportion of REF submissions would need to be open access. Instead of saying “80% of submissions must be open access” (or some other percentage), HEFCE is saying that it wants them all to be open access except where a specific excuse is given. I’d like them to be much less accommodating with what excuses they’ll accept, but the important thing here is that they have set the default to open.

Now for the most regrettable part of the policy:

While we do  not request that outputs are made available under any particular licence, we advise that outputs licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Non-Derivative (CC BY-NC-ND) licence would meet this requirement.

I won’t rehearse again all the reasons that Non-Commercial and No-Derivatives clauses are poison, I’ll just note that works published under this licence are not open access according to the original definition of that term, which allows us to “use [OA works] for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers”.

Yet even here, the general tenor of the policy is positive. While it accepts NC-ND, the policy adds that “where an HEI can demonstrate that outputs are presented in a form that allows re-use of the work, including via text-mining, credit will be given in the research environment component of the post-2014 REF”.

One last observation: HEFCE should be commended on having provided an excellent, detailed explanation of feedback they received to their consultations. As always, reading such documents can be frustrating because they necessarily contain some views very different from mine; but it’s useful to see the range of opinions laid out so explicitly.

No open-access policy document I’ve ever seen has been perfect, and this one is no exception. But overall, the HEFCE open-access policy is a significant and welcome step forward, and carries the promise of further positive moves in the future.

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