At a conference last week, I spoke of the intent to extend the open access (OA) requirements in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to include long-form scholarly works and monographs in 2027. Some seemed to think I was making a new announcement, as a fait accompli. In fact the overall intention was signalled more than a year ago – and it will take much more discussion and consultation to develop the policy details and finalise the conditions.

In December 2016 we, along with the other funding bodies, published a consultation on the details of the next REF, to be concluded in 2021. While the vast majority of the document was about the 2021 exercise, it also contained a key policy signal about the following research evaluation, planned for 2027. It signalled our intention to extend the open access requirements to include long-form scholarly works and monographs. This intent built on the excellent work that Professor Geoff Crossick did in 2015, and reflects the growing importance of open research.

The ‘REF after next’ sounds a long way off, but as I reminded attendees of the University Press Redux conference last week, the publication period for the next REF starts as soon as the current one ends. The intention declared in the consultation document comes into effect for long-form outputs published on or after 1 January 2021 – not that far away at all.

This has a number of implications. There is an urgent need to further explore and implement alternative business models for OA monographs, including, where appropriate, new innovative models. Authors need to consider their options for open access to the long-form outputs they are preparing, and have appropriate conversations with their publishers. And finally, there is some policy work ahead for us to add the detail to our intention, and to make it operational. On this final point, it is too early to set firm policy directions, but, building on the principles we published in December 2016 and the approach we have taken to open access for journal articles, some key features of the likely policy have started to emerge.

First, it would seem wise to remain open to a range of open access models. The REF 2021 policy for journal articles allows for both immediate access and access following suitable embargo periods. We need to acknowledge that there is already a much more diverse range of models within the world of OA books. The well-documented role of print copies for books also raises the possibility of models that don’t exist for journals.

Second, when it comes to models with embargo periods for OA books, we need to make sure the periods we set are realistic and evidence-based. We will clearly need to discuss this with publishers, and make use of the data they hold on the timing of sales to help inform decisions on embargo periods. Another area to explore is the version that might be published on a repository, and its relationship to the ‘version of record’.

A third area we need to explore is around licensing. For the policy on open access journals we adopted a relatively restricted minimum requirement – free to read and download – with some additional credit for going beyond that minimum. It will be worth exploring a similar approach for books, while noting that in some disciplines there may be significant issues with third party rights.

Finally, I would expect any requirement around monographs, like the journals policy, to include a wide range of possible exceptions. Even with the advance warning we have given, there will be books in preparation that may not be able to meet an OA requirement, and there will be other reasons for making justified exceptions to any requirement. Consultation and engagement with the sector will be crucial to identify these exceptions, and to shape our future policy on open access monographs. As with the policy for journal articles, it is not our intention to exclude excellent work from assessment and this will be fully considered in policy development.

So there is lots of work to do, and there are many conversations to be had. The UUK open access monographs working group has been tasked to monitor and evaluate progress towards open access book publishing, and to promote cultural change across the sector. Engagement and collaboration with a range of stakeholders will be crucial to support these activities.

The key now is that everyone works together to ensure that the benefits of open research are extended to disciplines where the long-form work is central to scholarly communication.

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