HEFCE and open access

I read the HEFCE document that Ursula drew attention to in her comment on my recent post about the LMS and open access. There are a couple of things we should be aware of.

It is a consultation document, released on 25 February this year, and requiring responses by 25 March (so it is already way too late). The title is Open Access and Submissions to the Research Excellence Framework post-2014.

The first thing to note is that it begs the question of whether there will be, or should be, a REF post-2014. When the RAE (which, as I like to point out, was correctly named: it was an exercise to assess research) was introduced in the late 1980s, there is general agreement that it had an effect: it concentrated people’s minds on the need to focus on doing good research, and was a wake-up call to some. But having done that, it became less useful; and the change from dual support to overheads on grants took away another plank, since the money it had to distribute was much reduced. After 2001, many voices were raised to say it has outlived its usefulness. Indeed, the reason for the seven-year gap until the next one (previous gaps had been four or five years) was the need to win the battle to have another RAE before it could be set up. Then came the present absurdity, the REF: meaningless title, universally unpopular emphasis on impact, etc.

I really wish that academics could all stand together and say, enough is enough. But I know this won’t happen; however bad it is, there are some people who profit from it (or imagine that they will), who will let down the united front, and HEFCE will listen to them.

Anyway, end of rant. As far as HEFCE are concerned, there will be another REF, and in order for papers to be eligible, they must be published under some version of open access. Although it is a consultation document, many of its conclusions are already said to be irrevocable. So, for example, in their words,

  • “work which has been originally published in an ineligible form then retrospectively made available in time for the post-2014 REF submission date should not be eligible”,
  • “all submitted outputs … shall be available through a repository of the submitting institution”.

The second point is particularly worrying. It says quite clearly that putting your papers on the arXiv will not qualify. I have struggled with the absurd software used by repositories in two universities; this requirement makes no sense whatsoever. They do, however, envisage the possibility that your institutional repository simply has a link to the arXiv; so why bother going round the houses?

They admit that there are serious problems for which no solution is yet in sight. For example, in some disciplines, a common form for output is the monograph. We don’t yet have a model for open-access monographs; do they expect publishers to give them away free? who will pay the postage?

As a final, general comment, a lot of the trouble comes from HEFCE’s desire to treat all subjects in exactly the same way. Perhaps this counts as “transparency”, and is thought to be a good thing by people who have not thought about it.

On a related subject, there was an article about epijournals in the current issue of the European Mathematical Society Newsletter. Most of it makes sense, but one proposal leaves me with a bit of unease. The organisation supporting epijournals will make available software for direct communication between author and referee, preserving the anonymity of the referee.

During my time as an academic, I have seen a big shift of responsibility from editor to referee. It used to be the case that the referee’s job was to advise the editor primarily on whether the paper was worth publishing, and second on any improvements which could/should be made. I have on more than one occasion had a disagreement with a referee and taken my case to the editor. (On one occasion the referee said, “page 7, line 23: this is wrong”, giving no indication of why. I told the editor that it was not wrong, and the editor believed me.)

However, there is a tendency now for editors simply to require that authors obey all the referees’ demands. This development in communications seems to take us some way further in this direction.

By coincidence, this issue of the EMS Newsletter also has an article about the British Society for the History of Mathematics.


About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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