UK's OA policy influences research assessment

The UK’s system for assessing research and allocating money has added new open-access requirements. Neil Jacobs looks at what this means for researchers in the UK and elsewhere

The four UK higher education funding bodies use the Research Excellence Framework to assess the quality of research in UK universities. The system is also used to allocate funding so universities in the UK – and their researchers – need to pay close attention to any changes made to the framework.

One of the requirements for submission to the next framework is that journal articles (and many conference papers) will need to be deposited into a repository at the point of acceptance and made open access within defined embargo periods. However, these requirements are about more than compliance with a funder’s open-access policy. They are about the roles, rights and responsibilities of researchers, institutions and publishers in the digital age, and the opportunities to which they give rise.

Accepting the point

A key feature of the REF policy, one that has aroused some discussion, is its focus on the point at which a paper is accepted for publication. Traditionally, this has been a moment shared only between journal and author. This moment happened at the end of a peer-review process, which would have both improved and assured the quality of the paper (periodic controversies notwithstanding). 

The certification role played by journals and some conference series is vital to the scholarly record. However, the output of this process is not a final published version of the paper, with pagination, complete metadata, etc, but a manuscript containing a peer-reviewed account of research. Because of this, and because – despite the efforts of many repository staff across the country – depositing this version at the point of acceptance has not been common, some have argued that it is an unnecessary additional burden. This is a question that researchers and institutions should and do care about but there is much more to it than that.

The Finch Report recommended that the long-term goal for UK-authored papers should be gold open access, supported by article processing charges (APCs). However, the report acknowledged that a mixed economy would need to persist for a lengthy transition period. A key feature of APCs is that, in principle, they become payable at the point of acceptance. This means that the point of acceptance will inevitably change from being a simple email from a journal to an author, to being the indicator that other stakeholders, notably the universities paying the APC, need to be involved.

By emphasising the point of acceptance, the REF’s open-access policy encourages all parties to manage the acceptance of papers more closely; with appropriate notifications and metadata. This is an essential pre-requisite for gold open access paid for by public money. By exercising this new role, both universities and researchers will enable their research to be discoverable sooner and more widely than ever before, through their institutional repositories, again maximising the return on public investment in that research.

The wider picture

All national policies need to recognise that research is international in many ways. It is often undertaken by international teams and may be read and built on all over the world. The REF’s open-access policy is, for example broadly consistent with the policy of the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme, which requires published papers to be deposited into a repository as soon as possible, at the latest at the point of publication. Encouraging researchers to deposit before the point of publication recognises that the time between the acceptance of a paper and its publication should be the locus for action. This approach is consistent with longer term moves toward gold open access and both the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the European Commission have explicitly said that their funding can be used to pay APCs.

What next?

The new REF policy in the UK comes into force for papers accepted after 1 April 2016. A survey carried out during July 2014 suggests that the majority of UK universities are already taking, or planning, action to enable them to comply with the policy. 

Jisc is discussing with publishers whether the author’s accepted manuscript, or even a notification of its acceptance by a journal, can be made available to universities. While authors remain responsible for whether their outputs can be submitted to the next Research Excellence Framework, publishers could have a key supporting role to play here, and some – but not all – are willing to consider this at the moment. The journals that make compliance easier for authors and universities may well develop better relationships with their authors than those that don’t. 

In the longer term, the impact of the open-access policy could be to dramatically improve information flows across the network of scholarly communication, which would be a significant beneficial by-product.

Neil Jacobs is head of scholarly communications support at Jisc

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