The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) have recently announced that they are lessening their proposed stance in relation to Open Access (OA) for the next round of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). If that opening sentence seems like it contains far too many acronyms to be of relevance to you then think again, as effectively what it means is that scientific research will be less accessible by the general public than had previously been hoped for.
What a lot of non-researchers don’t realise is that a lot of scientific articles sit behind a pay wall, which like that of news outlets such as The Times, means that you have to pay in order to access them. These fees vary from journal to journal, but are normally somewhere in the £15-£25 price range (per article), which means that if you wanted to look at four separate articles you could be paying upwards of £100. Of course you may be asking yourself, “yes, but when am I going to actually want to read one of these articles?” But, imagine that you have a terminally ill relative and have just heard of a new miracle cure, or that you are a potato farmer wanting to fully investigate the efficiency of a new type of pesticide. Would you be able to shell out for each of these articles, no matter how spurious the abstracts (which ARE free to access) might appear? Of course you could take up an annual subscription for some of these journals but, with the Nature brand of journals having 91 publications alone, and with most of these subscription costs in excess of £200 per journal, these costs soon become insurmountable.
I have written more extensively on the topic elsewhere, but the whole point of the OA movement is to make these journal articles freely available for all, with either the researcher or the central government bearing the cost. And, it was supposed to be HEFCE that was helping to bring about the change by implementing restrictions for the REF. For those of you who do not know, the REF is basically a giant study that is conducted every six years, in which the research output of every UK university is assessed and ranked, with funding awarded from HEFCE based on that ranking. Again, more details on REF can be read about here, but the idea was that in order for publications to qualify for REF2020, they would need to be made OA, either by publishing in OA journals, or placing them in a freely-accessible repository within three months of the journal article being accepted for publication.
However, under the new guidelines (which can be read here, with highlighted track changes from the original document), which have been revisited after consultation with several leading research institutes, the rules have been changed, and the period of grace is now three months since publication. This may seem like quite a subtle difference, but in some cases it will mean that there is a period of several more months before the research is made freely available. There have also been some other changes, including the admittedly sensible decision that any article that is published via the gold route (i.e. in an OA journal) need not be uploaded to the repository until the final published version has been created. However, I think that there is a very real danger that any softening of the rules is indicative of the fact that HEFCE are probably likely to bend the rules, probably to ensure that any of the larger, and less OA mobilised, research institutes don’t miss out on their slice of the REF pie. The fact that “this additional flexibility will be reviewed in 2016” means that we need to monitor these developments very carefully indeed, in order to make sure that the door is not just slightly ajar, but ripped clean off its hinges so that everyone is welcome.
Post by: Sam Illingworth