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In or out, green or gold? Plan S raises questions for the REF

The rules of the Research Excellence Framework will determine the fate of open access in the UK, says Martin Paul Eve.

The Brexit debate has included much talk of that slipperiest of phrases, regulatory alignment. Alignment seems also to be the watchword of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which in September 2018 signed up to the ambitious pan-European scheme for open-access scholarly publishing, Plan S. This show of shared mission with Europe is an important and laudable gesture at an otherwise perilous time for UK research funding.

After the hype surrounding the plan’s launch last autumn, the coalition behind it put out a consultation call on its implementation guidelines in November 2018. Predictably, many—including the Royal Historical Society and a large number of chemists—took this as an opportunity to oppose the plan altogether, although this was not the stated aim of the consultation.

The consultation actually asks for clarification on ambiguities in the implementation guidance. And there are many such ambiguities. For the UK, one of the most important pertains to devolution and the Research Excellence Framework.

Research England, which runs the REF in England, is a constituent body of UKRI. This implies that outputs submitted to the anticipated third REF, presumably in the mid-2020s, would need to comply with Plan S.

However, the REF is co-administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, the Scottish Funding Council and the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland. These three have not signed up to Plan S.

This leaves UK policy in a tricky situation. Plan S would have a lot more bite in the UK if it covered outputs submitted to the REF. Yet we do not know whether this is the case.

If the REF were to be included, how would this work? The most notable feature of Plan S is its tilt towards gold open access, where publications are freely accessible immediately on publishers’ sites. This has led many commentators to overlook that the plan also contains a provision for green open access, where authors place accepted manuscripts in an institutional repository.

Certainly, its zero-embargo stance is much harsher than the REF’s current open-access policy, which allows an embargo of 12 to 24 months after publication, depending on the discipline. But it is not unheard of—Cambridge University Press already allows zero-embargo green open access for publications in the humanities.

How seriously the plan’s architects take green open access is unclear. It gets relatively few words in the plan, although the requirements placed on repositories are extremely high. A joint response from the libraries of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has suggested lowering these requirements in the name of pragmatism.

Keeping the green option open could help both learned society publishers who are unable or unwilling to adapt their economic models, and funding bodies with existing mandates for green open access.

For society publishers, there is little evidence that green open access causes subscription cancellations, although they will rightly worry about the long-term viability of their economic model. For funders, adapting the current REF mandate, for instance, to comply with the green provisions of Plan S would be much simpler than altering it to accommodate all forms of gold open access.

The challenge is that Plan S attempts simultaneously to address economic problems in scholarly communications and to facilitate access to research. These are different things.

The green route offers a pragmatic way to achieve instant and near-universal open access by extending existing mandates. But whether it will curb hyper-inflationary price rises in scholarly publishing is another matter. The gold route and the plan’s eventual ban on hybrid journals, which publish both open access and subscription content, target both goals. It is not clear how green open access does.

The issue of costs is itself a point of ambiguity. Some advocates argue that open access is worthwhile even if it costs more than the current system. And the plan’s call for transparency on publishers’ costs is remarkable. Is any other industry obliged to publish its costs, as opposed to its prices, even in response to public tender?

There are, of course, politics at play in what is clarified and what is not. It may suit Research England not to say, for the time being, whether Plan S will apply to the next-but-one REF. It probably has bigger fish to fry at present.

The scope and scale of funder involvement, however, is Plan S’s core selling point. If the REF is onside with Plan S, it would be an away win for Europe’s open-access scheme.

Martin Paul Eve is professor of literature, technology and publishing at Birkbeck, University of London, and co-chief executive of the Open Library of Humanities.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight