The stick, the carrots and the bear trap

UK HEFCE Public Access policy is a shift in the landscape

After a one-year consultation, the four UK higher education funding bodies (HEFCE) have issued the first national policy to explicitly link public access with research evaluation. Any research article or conference proceeding accepted after 1st April 2016 that does not comply with their public access policy will be inadmissible to the UK Research Excellence Framework (REF), the system in the UK by which all government funded higher education institutions are assessed. The policy is a significant landmark in the global transition to Open Access and, in parallel with the UK Research Funders (RCUK) OA policy, will make research from the UK the most publicly available in the world.

The UK’s Higher Education Funding Councils are direct funders of UK research institutions (HEIs). They distribute large sums of money to UK universities based on an assessment exercise that occurs roughly every seven years. The funding council money can be used as institutions see fit to support research and can make the difference between being in the black or the red. The funding is distributed largely on the basis of an assessment of four outputs submitted by each assessed researcher. It is these outputs that will need to be free to read, linking public access to research assessment at a national scale for the first time.

At the same time the Funding Councils are indirect funders from the perspective of researchers. Because they do not have a direct relationship with researchers they are more limited in their policy options. Within the limitations this imposes, this is therefore a good policy. Yes, there are loopholes and some of the provisions for text mining are disappointing – the minimum acceptable licence restricts any derivative reuse for example – but overall the policy provides a strong signal about the direction of travel. Moreover, it contains not just a hefty stick, but also some well-aimed carrots and a bear trap if things go off track.

Crucially, HEFCE’s aim is full compliance. There are no soft percentage targets here. They also note that 96% of submitted outputs to the 2014 REF could have complied with this policy if authors had deposited whenever they were able (Appendix B paragraph 54).

Here’s the basics:

  • The policy applies to all research articles and conference proceedings (with an International Standard Serial Number) that list a UK HEI in the address field, regardless of subject area. It doesn’t apply to data, monographs, book chapters or other reports that might have security or commercial implications.
  • The final peer-reviewed accepted article must be deposited on acceptance (with a 3 months grace period) in an institutional repository, a repository service shared between multiple institutions, or in a subject repository such as ArXiv or Pubmed Central.
  • Deposited material should be discoverable, and free to read and download, in perpetuity for anyone with an internet connection.
  • They don’t recommend any specific licence but note that outputs licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Non-Derivative (CC BY-NC-ND) licence would be compliant.
  • Embargoes on access to the deposited article are permitted – up to 12 months for STEM and 24 months for AHSS – but articles must still be discoverable from the repository during this period even if the full text is not accessible.
  • Note that deposition and access are treated separately in the policy: immediate deposition is mandatory but immediate access is not if there is an embargo (which they term ‘closed deposit’).
  • All articles published in a PLOS journal can be compliant through deposition of the final manuscript or the final published version in any appropriate repository. All PLOS articles are also deposited in a subject repository, Pubmed Central, as part of the publication process.

The problems and the loopholes

The problems with the policy are the embargo times permitted, the weakness of the licensing requirements, a lack of requirements for the ability to mine repositories and the set of exemptions. These exemptions mean that research outputs that are not available could still be submitted to the REF if 1) the output depends on third party material that is not legally accessible or 2) the embargo required by the publisher is longer than HEFCE has stipulated or 3), worse still, the publisher just doesn’t permit deposition in a repository.

These exemptions raise concerns that publishers will simply impose more stringent licensing conditions, restrict deposition and/or start seeing the embargo periods specified by HEFCE as targets, rather than limits. But this is also where the judicious use of sticks and carrots (and bear traps) makes the policy more effective than you might first assume.

Here’s the stick

The stick is aimed at institutions – any research output that does not meet HEFCE’s requirements or exemptions will be treated as non-compliant. “Non-compliant outputs will be given an unclassified score and will not be assessed in the REF”. That’s a major incentive to be compliant and it’s powerful because it is aimed at institutions, rather than at researchers. Each exemption will have to be individually justified and this will require time and effort. Institutions will have a strong incentive to reduce as far as possible the number of exemptions that they want to claim.

Here’s the carrots

The policy has two important carrots which create incentives to increase the type of research outputs deposited and to encourage more liberal licencing for reuse. Specifically, they state that any higher education institution that can demonstrate it has taken steps towards enabling open access for outputs above and beyond the basic requirements, or that can demonstrate that outputs are presented in a form that allows re-use of the work, including via text-mining, will be given ‘credit’ in the Research Environment component of the post-2014 REF.

It’s not clear exactly what that credit will be although they note in Appendix B (paragraph 34) that further details of this will be developed in the coming years as part of their planning work for the next REF. Nevertheless, it seems likely that it will provide a way for a department to increase its research rating. That’s a powerful incentive to be more open.

And here’s the bear trap

A significant implication of the policy is only made clear in Appendix B (paragraph 67). The policy aims to enable researchers to have the academic freedom to publish where they choose. And this is why HEFCE allowed exemptions to the policy. However, as noted above, they expect exemptions to be applied in only a small proportion of cases. And what happens next depends on how different ‘actors in the system’ behave. So watch out for the bear trap: “If it becomes apparent that our policy is having a neutral, or detrimental, effect on the UK’s journey towards open access, we will revisit this policy to reconsider these provisions.”

The take home message

This policy is a game changer. It will result in a substantial increase in the proportion of UK research that is free to read. The UK will take a strong lead compared to other countries in making research accessible. When we talk about Open Access at PLOS we mean access to read with generous re-use rights. In this light there are some disappointing aspects but these are primarily a result of the Funding Councils being indirect funders – their funding is not tied to specific projects that generate specific outputs.

It is precisely due to the indirect nature of this funding, and its importance in the UK system, that the reach of the policy is so great. Every paper published with a UK university affiliation will be subject to this policy. The disappointments we may have with the details therefore needs to be tempered with an appreciation of how substantial its effect will be. This policy represents an important step forward in the transition to full Open Access.

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