As a result of prolonged pressure from the open access (OA) movement — and following considerable controversy within the research community — the UK is now embarked on a journey that OA advocates hope will lead to all publicly-funded research produced in the country being made freely available on the Internet. This, they believe, will be the outcome of two funder mandates that have been introduced.
The Research Councils UK (RCUK) policy — which came into effect on April 1st 2013 — requires that all peer-reviewed papers and conference proceedings (and eventually monographs too it is assumed) arising from research funded by RCUK are made open access, either by researchers paying to publish in open access journals (gold OA), or continuing to publish in the traditional (subscription) manner and then depositing copies of their works in an open access repository (green OA), usually after an embargo period.
The policy of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) — which will come into effect in 2016 — will require researchers to deposit all their final peer-reviewed manuscripts in an institutional or subject repository as soon after the point of acceptance as possible, “and no later than three months after this date”.
It has taken the OA movement twelve years to get the UK to this point (the Budapest Open Access Initiative was authored in 2002), but advocates believe that these two mandates have now made open access a done deal in the country. As such, they say, they represent a huge win for the movement.
Above all, they argue, HEFCE’s insistence that only those works that have been deposited in an open repository will be eligible for assessment for REF2020 (which directly affects faculty tenure, promotion and funding) is a requirement that no researcher can afford to ignore.
But could this be too optimistic a view? Dagmara Weckowska, a lecturer in Business and Innovation at the University of Sussex, believes it may be. While she does not doubt that the RCUK/HEFCE policies will increase the number of research outputs made open access, she questions whether they will be as effective as OA advocates appear to assume.
Weckowska reached this conclusion after doing some research earlier this year into how researchers’ attitudes to open access have changed as a result of the RCUK policy. This, she says, suggests that open access mandates will only be fully successful if researchers can be convinced of the benefits of open access. As she puts it, “Researchers who currently provide OA only when they are required to do so by their funders will need a change of heart and mind to start providing open access to all their work.”
In addition, she says: “Under the new HEFCE policy, researchers have incentives to make their best 4 papers accessible through the gold or green OA route (assuming that the REF again requires 4 papers) but they do not have incentives to make ALL their papers openly accessible.”
Further complicating matters, Weckowska points out that UK HEIs do not currently know how many research outputs their faculty produce each year, which would suggest that universities will struggle to ensure that faculty comply with the policies.
The conclusion would seem to be, therefore, that UK funders still have some work to do if they want OA to become the default for published research, both in terms of educating researchers about the benefits of open access, and ensuring that adequate compliance mechanisms are put in place.
And judging by a survey undertaken earlier this year by the publisher Taylor & Francis it would appear that there is still an urgent need to educate researchers in the specifics of what the mandates actually require of them. Only 30% of respondents to the T&F survey said they understood the RCUK policy, and many “appeared to be unsure whether the policy applies to them, since over half [55%] were unable to say whether or not their future articles would need to be published in accordance with the policy or not.”