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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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In the past few days, well over a year since HEFCE signalled its “inten[tion] to move towards an open-access requirement for monographs in the exercise that follows the next REF (expected in the mid-2020s)”, humanities academics have been getting themselves stirred up on the basis of a document issued by the Royal Historical Society. It is curious that it is only now that people are paying any attention to this. The original document (see Annex C of the consultation on the Second REF) was issued in December 2016 “to give due notice to the sector”, yet many have been caught off guard.

Apt timing or not, though, there are many reasons why academics should not be so alarmed:

1) HEFCE (now RE) consulted heavily during the implementation of the mandate for journal articles and changed the policy many times in response to this approach. They will do so again for any future monograph mandate. The challenges of OA monographs and their economics on a global scale are well understood and noted (not least by me in a recent article on the difficult costs of such a proposal).

On this note, Steven Hill of HEFCE (now RE) said: “there is lots of work to do, and there are many conversations to be had” and that “engagement and collaboration with a range of stakeholders will be crucial to support these activities”. Consultation is the watchword here, but from the RHS document, you’d think it was all a done deal with the details set in stone.

2) Nobody is stopping you writing the book that you want to write. I have seen several tweets this morning saying that this will “kill the trade book” and that knowledge transfer activities are being disregarded in such a policy. There has been a worry from, say, Art Historians that their use of third-party material will cause significant problems if all books had to be OA (this concern is real: it could). The RHS wrote, with underlined and bolded emphasis in the original, that it would apply to “_all_ book-length publications”. But this is patently untrue. If you actually read the Annex proposing a future move towards such a policy, it says:

There will be legitimate reasons why some monographs cannot be open access, and we will be flexible about the proportion of monographs submitted to a future exercise that will be expected to meet open-access requirements. Such reasons might include, but are not limited to: the lack of viable electronic or open-access publishing options for some monographs; problems created by significant dependence on the inclusion of copyrighted third-party material in the monograph; or a substantial dependence on royalty payments for sustaining an author’s research endeavours.

So, there are liberal exemptions even built in as a precept before any consultation has formally begun. (It is worth saying, though, that an OA book, alongside a trade print publication, could increase the reach of the work to those who cannot afford or would not usually read a trade non-fiction book.)

As far as I am concerned, if you read the actual published policy material, the RHS document is wrong in this respect (“will affect the REF-eligibility of *all* book-length publications published after 2020” and “HEFCE has recently confirmed that all long-form research published in book form will have to be made available in Open Access (OA) formats in order to be submitted for the Research Excellence Framework exercise due in 2027”). This is, then, highly misleading and inflammatory. I mean, the actual post by Steven Hill at HEFCE, which the RHS cites, let alone the policy document, says: “I would expect any requirement around monographs, like the journals policy, to include a wide range of possible exceptions”.

3) Some people seem to be outraged, in general, at the concept of their books being freely available for anyone to read. (The same people, sometimes, who have been urging greater solidarity between all peoples during the recent HE strike.) I would remind everyone that if you believe in free education and were outraged by tuition fees and the restriction of HE etc., as I was, then it is no great stretch to believe that some good in the world might be achieved by making research work freely available to read, within practical constraints. However, if you want a balanced view on this, see Geoff Crossick’s report from a few years ago. This is a well-reasoned but pragmatic take on OA for books, its upsides and downsides.

4) A UUK working group (yes, I know: UUK not in our good books at the moment) has been considering the practical challenges of the mandate and working out what is actually possible given the economic and social constraints of the academy in the UK. The types of question asked by the RHS document (e.g. “What funding arrangements will guarantee that current standards of peer review and long-form text curation (including series-editing and copy-editing) are maintained?”) are precisely the sorts of issues that we are discussing. A mandate that caused widespread catastrophic destruction with no consultation is simply not on the cards.

5) One of the largest concerns that comes from the RHS document is the ability of academics to publish with overseas (read: US university) presses. For instance: “Will UK researchers, for example, lose the ability to publish their works in prestigious North American monograph series in their subspecialisms, and/or to publish research in languages other than English with European imprints?” As above, see exemptions for cases where it is not possible to procure an OA option. However, if the economics are done correctly, there is no reason why these presses should turn down UK authors anyway. Many US Presses, such as Michigan, have embraced OA for books.

As an aside, I also have a few other thoughts on this, some gentler than others. First, it is interesting that prestige should play such a role here. Is there this focus on “prestige” because overseas colleagues won’t value good work published in non-prestigious venues (in which case, they are not very good evaluators) or because of the benefit of prestige in terms of a career for UK researchers within our current system (the self-interest approach)? Second, though: throughout debates on OA, the RHS has insisted that peer review should be the sole criterion for admissibility to be published. It is the “gold standard”. It is a vital part of academia that we must maintain. Yet, in this instance, the RHS appears to acknowledge that Presses will turn down UK authors because of a (future, currently imagined) OA mandate. That is, the RHS defends the right of academic presses to turn down authors on bases other than academic merit. Third, the remark about overseas publishing may rankle for those in overseas locations who could never afford these books anyway. Academic publishing from the Global North is very badly distributed for access on a global scale. Finally, this all appears under a claim of “international reach”. It’s not really reach that is being spoken of, though. The broadest international reach would be achieved by such works being OA: that is, not charging people, not having barriers to sharing the work etc. What’s actually at stake under the umbrella of “reach” is the limited economy of attention and the implicit sub-claim here that people only read books published in the prestigious series that they recognise. This has far more profound implications for academia, its evaluative cultures, and what it says about the ways that we filter, read, and value.

The takeaway message (tl;dr) for me, here, though is: the sky is not falling. If you read the actual text of Annex C in the REF consultation, it’s both very speculative (it’s a signal of an intention to move towards some form of mandate) and very liberal with its wording on exemptions. I would expect that there would be a formal consultation from RE to which anyone would be welcome to respond once more is solidly known about the economics and what might be possible, as Steven Hill indicated. A working group is meeting regularly and commissioning feasibility studies.

It is simply not the case that a heavy-handed “regime” (the RHS’s term) is being imposed from above without any thought or consultation and that it applies to all books from 2020 onwards. There’s actually no policy at all yet. And, in truth, the RHS knows this (certainly, Richard Fisher, ex-MD of CUP and co-signatory of the document has been on many of the policy advisory panels around the issue of OA monographs and knows the environments and the consultative approach that is taken). It feels to me as though the RHS are playing a negotiating game in which they will argue hard against the OA mandate, painting it as the devil to stir up fear in academics, so that when the consultation comes, the mandate will be as soft as possible. On the basis of the RHS document, though, you might be forgiven for thinking that this was just going to appear as a bolt from the blue one day and to overturn everything that we hold dear.

Perhaps that’s how these things have to go. I find all the cloak-and-dagger a bit irksome, though, when what many of us who argue for OA books really want is a way for the economically disempowered to be able to stumble across and to read academic work in the humanities. (And no: having walk-in library access is a poor way of delivering this goal; some academic books only appear in a few academic libraries around the country.)

That said, I particularly find the inaccuracies in the RHS document, undoubtedly put in for rhetorical purposes, galling. The least I would like is an accurate summary of the policies they cite (indeed, the preservation of accuracy is one of the reasons that they’ve argued against open licensing so strongly in the past). There was no need to say “all” in bolded, underlined typeface, when every document so far has spoken of broad and far-ranging exceptions but also of wide consultation.

But to close: I want to go back to the reasons why OA could be good for our work and why we should engage constructively with proposals for an OA mandate. For why are we really publishing, if the majority of humans in the world do not and/or cannot read work in the humanities?