REFlecting on progress towards open access

REFlecting on progress towards open access

14 June 2018


In March 2014, the four UK funding bodies announced an open access policy for the next Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021). The policy states that publically funded research should be discoverable and free to read and download from 1 April 2016.

REF2021 OA policy is working

Fast forward four years and the REF 2021 OA policy has established itself as one of the driving forces behind outputs from the UK’s academic community being freely available to read and download. A report published today shows that the UK is making huge strides towards open access. Over eighty percent of outputs that are within scope of the REF OA policy are meeting the policy requirements, or an exception is known to apply.

Compliance progress

The report is a snapshot of all outputs in scope of the REF open access policy, monitoring the first year of policy implementation from 1 April 2016 to 31 March 2017. It shows that sixty one percent of outputs are compliant with the policy, with a further twenty percent reporting a known exception. Significantly, a high proportion of outputs where an exception to the policy is known to apply are freely available through the ‘gold’ open access route. ‘Gold’ open access refers to publishing in a way that allows immediate access to everyone electronically and free of charge. These outputs are fulfilling the policy intent.

Nineteen percent of outputs were found not to be compliant with the policy, or have a known exception. Firstly, it is important at this stage to step back and recognise the progress that has been made in a relatively short period of time. We don’t want this nineteen per cent to set off alarm bells. Not everything will be submitted to REF 2021. Some institutions are developing procedures that may increase compliance levels across the remainder of the submission period. Others are focusing on making REF-likely outputs open, recognising disciplinary differences in the types of output that are generally selected for assessment.

REF policy isn’t there to catch institutions out

What we want is research to be open. The report shows that the REF policy mandate is driving this intent. The REF policy should be seen as a positive approach to open access, and isn’t intended to catch institutions out in REF 2021. We are learning from the sector’s progress and vice-versa in the implementation of this policy – let’s do so collaboratively and work together to achieve openness.  

So, a thank-you from us for the hard work (and the enthusiasm!) shown by authors, service providers and professional service staff – in particular those working in academic libraries – in achieving this level of compliance.

Progress at what cost?

We know that a move to open access (both green and gold) has not been achieved without cost. The survey shows that over three hundred staff are employed in universities to implement or support open access (although this is not just restricted to the REF OA policy). ‘Green’ open access refers to depositing the final peer-reviewed research output in an electronic archive called a repository. Access to the research output can be granted either immediately or after an agreed embargo period.

We didn’t intend to focus on the financial implications of open access in this work. However, the report shows that institutions clearly rely on the RCUK block grant and Charity Open Access Fund (COAF) for staffing costs as well as open access Article Processing Charges (APCs).

We are thinking about the future

The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) open access review is scheduled to kick off later this year. Sir Mark Walport has already outlined that UK Research and Innovation is committed to open research – it is central to UKRI’s ambitions.

The UKRI review is currently being scoped out. The report published today provides us with evidence to consider as part of UKRI’s review. Although the REF 2021 open access policy will not change, the review provides us with an opportunity to understand what is working well – and what isn’t.

With Robert-Jan Smits, the former Director-General for Research and Innovation for the European Commission recently appointed as the EU’s special envoy on open access, the UK needs to play its part in progressing with the open access research agenda.