Open access and the next REF

Many will be aware that research funding bodies (research councils and charities) have, over the past few years, increasingly insisted that the outcomes of research that they fund are available in the public domain. For example, any publications arising from funded research need to be ‘open access’. For those unfamiliar with scientific publishing, let me explain that in the recent past an academic would submit a piece of research in the form of a manuscript to  a particular learned journal. Following peer-review, if the paper is accepted for publication, it would appear in hard-copy printed form in a future edition of the journal – sometimes as long as 6 months or a year after acceptance. In order to access and read that work, it is necessary to purchase a subscription to the journal, either as an individual or as an organisation. The cost of the subscription can be significant, and if an individual or organisation cannot afford same, then it is not possible to access or read the work. Funding bodies, some of whom are in effect the keepers of public money (i.e. research councils) have argued that this is not an appropriate use of public funds – they quite rightly require public funded research to be accessible publically. The digital revolution doesn’t change anything by the way – while we can routinely access almost any journal from our desks at NU, this comes at very significant expense in the form of subscriptions paid to the publishers by our organisation.   One should also remember that academics do not typically receive any payment for publishing an article in journals – in fact we are often require to pay ‘page charges’ to offset the cost of publication. Moreover, we are frequently asked to peer review the submissions of others, again without payment – a situation we all accept since otherwise the system would break down.

The problem with open access is that the publishers are in effect being asked to make publications available to anyone with access to the internet, without charge. Publishers are businesses like any other, and thus need revenue to stay in business. Since the ‘reader’ does not pay, the only other means to raise revenue is to charge the author for open access. Again, this is a significant amount of money.  The outcome however is that anyone logging on to the journal webpage can click on a link and download the publication. This is known as “gold open access” as recommended in the Finch report. An alternative, much cheaper mechanism is “green access” where the final, accepted version of the manuscript (not the typeset version) is available on a  local publication repository – such as we have at NU.

A very important recent development is the publication of a policy on open access by HEFCE which will have dramatic implications for the next REF. You can read the full document here, but here are the key points:

  • 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 (i.e. minimum “green access”) on acceptance for publication – note the date of acceptance rather than the date of publication!
  • The policy allows repositories to respect embargo periods set by publications, but closed deposits must be discoverable to anyone with an internet connection before the full text becomes available for read and download.
  • There are a number of exceptions to this policy but it clear that the vast majority of outputs from SAgE will need to comply.

Fortunately, the policy will only apply to journal articles and conference proceedings accepted for publication after 1st April 2016. There is no immediate issue therefore, but we need to get our act together rather quickly nonetheless. The Dean of Research will be working with the Research Committee to figure out the best way to ensure compliance with this policy well before the deadline.

Finally, the University does receive funds to support gold access. These will be insufficient to allow every publication from SAgE to have gold access. Again the Dean of Research will devise a policy regarding which outputs should be afforded this level of access, and will report back in due course.


About stevehomans

Professor Steve Homans is a structural biologist with an international reputation in the study of biomolecular interactions. He obtained his first degree and DPhil in Biochemistry at Oxford University, and secured his first academic position as Lecturer at the University of Dundee. In 1998 he received the Zeneca award from the Biochemical Society and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Prior to his current appointment he was Dean of the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds. Professor Homans brings extensive expertise of academic leadership and management, with a particular emphasis on organisational change.
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One Response to Open access and the next REF

  1. Cal says:

    To provide more background on the subscription fees: a blogger has posted a detailed examination of the fees for one large provider Elsevier which shows the kind of money at stake. Newcastle’s subscription is listed at £974,930 on that site (I have no idea if that’s accurate)

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