REF and Open Access

REF and Open Access

5 October 2018

Back in July 2013, before the submission buttons for REF 2014 had even been pressed, came the first consultation suggesting that some outputs submitted to future REFs should be in open access (OA) form. The details have been much debated, discussed and argued about since then and, with the publication of the draft guidance on submission, the full set of rules surrounding OA for this exercise is now in place. Or would it be better to say as many rules as we are going to get? Even with the publication of the draft guidance, there are some concerns that the guidance is not detailed enough. This nervousness has been increased with potentially stronger OA requirements in the future due to Plan S ( But Plan S won’t affect REF 2021 policy.

My often repeated phrase to those involved in a REF submission is ‘Read the guidance’. So much so, that I should just get it printed on a t-shirt. But what is available is the assessment framework and guidance not a REF rule book. This means the guidance gives the general principles for REF submissions, but there is always some room for interpretation.

OA is not the only place where REF managers work on principles. Another is researcher independence. The 2014 REF guidance had one scant paragraph defining independence. The proposed 2021 guidance has slightly more, but how could you include every single scenario of where evidence of independence might be found? The same can be said about impact. There are so many different ways for impact to occur, and the panel have given some examples, but how long would the REF guidance be if they included every scenario?

Would I like more information? Of course! However I recognise that, as with impact and independence, publishing life is messy and there will always be some complex situation that we haven’t come across before. Also, like impact in 2014, there isn’t any custom and practice for the REF to include. As such, we need to focus on the principle, which is encouraging, and supporting OA with the aim that outputs should be freely available in a repository, ideally shortly after it has been accepted for publication. There are exceptions to allow for cases where this legitimately couldn’t be achieved, but these often describe standard circumstances.

There is also a 5% tolerance band per unit of assessment (UOA) – allowing some non-compliant outputs to be submitted. The key principle for me is that we have evidence that we made our best effort to make an output OA. I do recognise that the audit requirements aren’t available yet, another area of concern I know, but that shouldn’t stop us from applying the broad principles and encouraging OA where we can. However, the real problem will be when an output wasn’t even added to the repository when published, no attempt was made to make it OA and there was no credible reason why this had happened.  So on the back of that t-shirt it needs to say ‘Paper accepted? Tell the Library!’