Open Access: A Benefit Not a Burden That is Worth the Cost

Open Access: A Benefit Not a Burden That is Worth the Cost 907 598 Open and Universal Science (OPUS) Project

The debates surrounding open access (OA) policies often appear to be repetitive and cyclical. However, upon closer examination, these discussions are slowly progressing towards a conclusive end. Despite the circuitous route, OA policies are steadily advancing towards full implementation. The journey has been far from straightforward due to the myriad technical, commercial, and cultural challenges that needed to be addressed and overcome.

The Current State of OA Policy Implementation

The timeline for the full realization of OA policies remains uncertain. There are still several hurdles to clear before reaching the final goal. Recently, representatives from Oxford University have raised concerns about linking OA to the Research Excellence Framework (REF), particularly with the proposed extension to include long-form publications such as monographs and book chapters. While their concerns highlight some legitimate issues regarding implementation, their overall arguments lack persuasiveness.

Patrick Grant, Oxford’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research, Tanita Casci, Director of the Research Strategy & Policy Unit, and Stephen Conway, Executive Director of Research Services, argue that the proposed policy is both “unaffordable and excessively bureaucratic.” They estimate that the OA compliance costs for the new requirements could reach £20 million over a REF cycle for Oxford University alone, excluding the costs of engaging with the complex policy. They further suggest that the expanded OA requirements could hinder institutions from submitting their best outputs for the 2029 assessment exercise.

The Broader Implications of OA Policies

However, the Oxford representatives’ argument overlooks a fundamental aspect: why would scholars not want their best work to reach the widest possible audience? Ensuring that research has the maximum impact within and beyond academia is crucial. They also claim that the policy promotes a compliance culture, detracting from opportunities to foster open research practices. While this is a potential risk, it is disheartening that senior figures at a leading university do not recognize the responsibilities and opportunities that come with a more inclusive OA policy.

One of the most disheartening points raised by Grant and colleagues is the question of why the REF should have an OA policy at all. This echoes objections from a decade ago when OA for the REF was first proposed, disregarding the fact that the REF allocates public funds. Denying public access to the outputs of publicly funded research lacks accountability and transparency.

The Benefits of Open Access

The significant public benefits of the REF OA mandate, first implemented in 2016, should not be overlooked. This mandate dramatically increased the accessibility of UK research, showcasing the numerous advantages of OA. Open access allows research to reach a broader audience, especially those without university journal subscriptions or library access. It aids in detecting fraudulent research practices, ensures global participation in research, and supports people with disabilities who find it challenging to access physical academic libraries. By removing barriers to access, we create a fairer and more equitable society.

The proposed expansion of the REF mandate to include long-form humanities work (such as books) will extend these benefits. Despite suggestions for equitable funding, resistance to this requirement persists. It is paradoxical that humanities scholars, who often lament the lack of public funding for their disciplines, resist efforts to make their research accessible to the public that provides this funding. This resistance is particularly concerning when humanities departments face existential threats. If outputs from disciplines like English, history, and classics remain invisible to the wider world, they risk being dismissed as irrelevant. The REF OA policy supports these disciplines, embodying a “transparent and participative” social contract between academics and society as envisioned by Gibbons in 1999.

Addressing Bureaucracy and Cost Concerns

Researchers are justified in resisting unnecessary bureaucracy, and Research England should consider reasonable suggestions for streamlining the process. The numerous exemptions and caveats in the policy indicate a willingness to address these concerns.

However, it is also fair to question what proactive measures institutions like Oxford have taken to prepare for a policy trailed back in 2016. Oxford’s estimate of £20 million in costs should be viewed in the context of the approximately £1.2 billion it is likely to receive over a seven-year REF cycle. Is it unreasonable to expect that a mere 1.7% of this funding be allocated to ensure public access to the research results? Furthermore, to contain costs, institutions could implement robust and responsible research assessment exercises, freeing scholars from the demands of ‘prestige publishing’ and the associated price hikes. Investing in scholar-led publishing operations, such as the Open Library of the Humanities or university-led open access presses, is another viable solution.

Moving Forward

The technical, commercial, and cultural arguments surrounding the REF and OA will continue to evolve. It is crucial to engage in these discussions with a comprehensive understanding of all the issues at stake. By doing so, we can work towards a more inclusive and accessible future for academic research.

Original article By Stephen Curry, Dorothy Bishop and Martin Paul Eve via HEPI.

Photo via samakarov

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