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Martin Paul Eve

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

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HEFCE, the precursor to Research England, announced in 2016 that “we intend to move towards an open-access requirement for monographs in the exercise that follows the next REF (expected in the mid-2020s).” This was published in 2016 as, “[g]iven the length of time required to produce and publish monographs,” HEFCE wished “to give due notice to the sector” by “signalling this now”.

It is now two years since that signal was given and, to be blunt, we are not much further down the road to OA monographs. In this post I write with a personal view on the potential routes that Research England could pursue and also on the state of things with respect to OA monographs.

The Annex C document set out the following criteria for OA monographs (here abbreviated for the core points):

  • "... some monographs cannot be open-access, and we will be flexible..."
  • "as far as is practicable, the version that is made open-access should be academically equivalent to the final published version of record"
  • "The monograph should be free to access in its entirety, ideally immediately on publication."
  • "The monograph should at least be free to read, and ideally be [openly] licensed...]"
  • "There should be no requirement that any one particular business model be used..."

It’s worth noting, first of all, since it often leads to hysteria that the first point here is important: “some monographs cannot be open-access, and we will be flexible”. So we’re not necessarily talking about creative writing books (i.e. trade fiction), art-history volumes with masses of third-party images, or trade history books published by Penguin. Such volumes could easily fall under the flexible exemption scheme. We’re talking primarily here about the majority of humanities research books: predominantly textual with a currently very limited dissemination (usually billed as up to 200 copies or so). We are talking about the low-hanging fruit, as they are wont to say in business

In addition to running an event later this year, the UUK OA Monographs Working Group has commissioned some research, with the approval of the UUK OA Coordination Group, to understand “the specific challenges and barriers (perceived and real) from a range of stakeholders including (but not limited to): learned societies and subject associations, Pro-Vice-Chancellors (Research), research librarians, publishers (traditional, commercial, new university presses and academic-led presses) and funding organisations”. It is my personal view that this is too little too late. Crossick already, to my mind, explored the majority of these elements and we have had several studies looking into most of these aspects already. We know that the main challenge is funding. We also know what libraries currently spend on books and that the distributional profile is a poor fit for a switch to a supply-side funding mechanism.

Give this, how might Research England achieve a workable solution for a mid-2020s REF?

The Policy Options as I see Them

I am often asked what I think will happen re. the intention to mandate, usually by concerned-looking HoDs. I cannot speak officially on behalf of any body and do not profess to do so. Personally, though, as I see it, there are four potential options at present:

  1. They could fork out £19.2m per year, as per our cost study. This amount is a tiny but huge amount. It’s tiny compared to the size of other budgets, but it’s a relatively large amount in humanities terms. There would be many complications with administering such a fund, but again I would refer you to our article for more on the details of this. This antagonises either Vice Chancellors or the Treasury by diverting money from research. However, it keeps researchers and publishers relatively happy as the funding is, in my view, the hardest part of an OA transition for monographs.
  2. They could put no extra money into it, but simply demand compliance and threaten the withdrawal of QR funding to non-compliant humanities/social scientific units of assessment. This is the “nuclear option” that loses friends and alienates people. It antagonises Vice Chancellors, researchers, societies, and publishers and RE would need a strong hand to play this card. Depending on what happens with the EU and their stance on open science – and whether or not the UK is still beholden to such agendas – this could still be a possibility.
  3. They could explore a green route for monographs. Given that the proposed conditions specifically note that books should be OA “ideally immediately on publication”, it seems that RE wishes to avoid the tussle over green for journals with respect to embargo periods. There are many problems here with respect to editorial input, acceptance dates, the work being “academically equivalent to the final published version of record” etc. etc. This is a really difficult road to explore within the timescales set out for the mid-2020s REF. This road annoys researchers, societies and publishers. It also doesn’t look likely to be in place ready for the mid-2020s REF.
  4. They could withdraw the intention to mandate. This would feel, to me, like an utter shame for the public exposure of humanities work and its place in society. We have done so much work on this subject as well that it would be frustrating to see it cast aside. I know that I am an outlier in this view, though, among academics/researchers.

Further, if, as with previous mandates, there is first to be extensive sector-wide consultation, for which HEFCE/RE is well known, then this really needs to be done ASAP (remember: books for the REF-after-next are already being written and some will already be under contract). That said, the Annex C document was already part of a feedback consultation exercise, although this was less extensive on the OA monographs point than it might have been. Responses to this noted that: “an open access model for monographs is not yet sufficiently developed for universal adoption” (although I note that the proposed flexible exemptions do not require universal adoption to be met). I suspect, also, that anyone who could come up with a sensible proposal for the Research England Development fund that really got to grips with this matter might be in with a chance.

So, where does this leave us? It seems to me that there is no road forward that does not antagonise and/or irritate one or more of the demographic groups within UK HE (VCs, researchers, societies, and publishers). What is missing at the moment, in my view, is clear guidance and leadership on the intention to mandate. Someone needs to decide whom to annoy, soon. Because otherwise, the ten-year lead time on the signal will be down to five years, then three, then one, then zero.