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A remarkable comment (“Open excess: remove open access burden from REF”) on the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF) claims that open access is a burden on higher education. The comment, by three research managers at the University of Oxford, claims the proposed new rules for the REF (to be implemented in 2029) will be unnecessarily bureaucratic and will increase costs.

The post both praises the proposed REF 29 for employing a wider range of assessment criteria, but at the same time claims that making content open access is not something institutions should be doing. “A more fundamental question is why we should have a REF OA policy at all”. This is indeed a fundamental question.

What is an Open Access policy? The REF OA policy means simply that publicly funded research should be made available for everyone to read. It has nothing to do with the quality of the research, with impact factor, or with citation rankings. The REF is applied by an agency of the UK Government, and applies to research produced by publicly-funded institutions. Earlier versions of the REF applied only to journal articles, not books, and allowed for an embargo of up to 90 days between publication and making content available to read. But if we follow the principle of making all publicly-funded content available, neither of these restrictions should apply. Hence the proposed new REF covers all content, and asks for a zero embargo between publication and availability.

The specific arguments quoted by the Oxford team are questionable. They comprise four separate points. Firstly, cost. The Oxford team claim it costs their university £20M to check 15,000 articles and other outputs – a cost of £1,333 to process each article. This seems remarkably high; I don’t deny there is a cos to make content available, and I would be very keen to see that cost reduced, but a more realistic estimate of the cost would be a more useful way to solve the problem. More fundamentally, the cost of implementing the policy does not mean the policy should be shelved.

The second objection is that research excellence is not the same as Open Access. It is true that the UK Research Excellence Framework attempts to do two things at the same time, both ensure that content is available, and, quite separately, to estimate the value of that research. The expensive part of the assessment is for the UK Funding agencies to estimate the value; ensuring the content is visible is a small part of the overall cost, and is readily achievable by depositing the author’s accepted manuscript in an institutional repository.  

The third argument is a paradoxical one. Ensuring content is Open Access, that is, available to read, “detracts from opportunities to promote open research practices” But the latter is only possible because of the former; you can’t promote content that is not accessible. The uncomfortable truth for researchers is that, left to their own devices, they would frequently not bother about making their content universally available, even though the means to do so (via the Institutional repository) are available to them at no cost to themselves.

Finally, the Oxford team argue that cost of complying with the REF rules will prevent institutions from submitting all their content, because “funds are insufficient or non-existent”. This is surprising, given that the institution is publicly funded, and the research publicly funded as well. You could equally argue that if a researcher receives public funding, as well as the environment of a research university to carry out their research, then making their research available is an obligatory consequence of that research.

A comparison with the situation in the USA is apt. US institutions typically leave it to the researcher to comply with funder mandates to make content available for anyone to read. And the result is that much of the research output from US researchers is simply not available. Such a situation benefits nobody: not the researcher, whose work has less visibility than they would wish; not the community, who has funded the research without seeing any visible result, and it does not benefit scholarship, which depends on the sharing and exchange of experiments and opinions.