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Critique of “Open excess: remove open access burden from REF”


Patrick Grant, Tanita Casci & Stephen Conway, University of Oxford. “Open excess: remove open access burden from REF.” 11 June 2024.

I’m not going to critique this piece focusing on the details and purposes of the REF and its Open Access policy. Neither am I going to argue the detailed points on cost and bureaucracy on which the authors base their argument against the proposed policy. My reason for this is that I feel the authors have missed a rudimentary point. The authors state “A more fundamental question is why we should have a REF OA policy at all”: this is what I shall address. As a former employee of the University, I write this as a critical friend.

The University of Oxford has made massive strides towards fairer and more widespread access to research findings. This is encapsulated in its recently published Open Research Position Statement. The statement includes “We believe that applying principles of openness and accessibility to research processes and research outputs has strong benefits for research quality and impact, by improving reuse and reproducibility, and underpinning research integrity.” In my opinion, the authors, as senior university leaders, should be approaching the proposed REF OA policy as a means to help them drive the University towards even better and more open scholarship. REF OA policy should be viewed as an enabler towards the greater open research desired by the University and its members, not a target to be met purely on its own terms.

Questions senior university leaders should consider

The University should be asking questions such as the following:

  • This University is forward looking and aware of wide-ranging innovations, both developing and as yet unknown, in a rapidly evolving research dissemination environment. How can we use the REF OA policy to further our efforts to make Oxford research more discoverable, available, and used, in this rapidly evolving landscape, in order to further international collaboration, better & more trustworthy research findings, and equitable global access?
  • What is the cost – financial, reputational, impact, and societal – of not exploiting the REF OA policy to promote and support our internal drive towards Open Scholarship? By not using the REF OA policy, and other funders’ policies, as a catalyst, will this university end up paying more for patchy openness via costly solutions, and, by having less openness, losing some of its ability to make an impact with its research findings? 
  • The authors are approaching the implementation of a REF OA policy in terms of compliance. As I have argued for many years, OA (and its related topic of authors’ rights) should not be viewed purely as a compliance matter, but as a benefit that scholarship wants and needs for its own purposes. Enlightened scholars and universities in the 21st century are promoting openness because they know it benefits researchers, research, and society in general. They want more of it, not less. The authors actually answer this question themselves in the piece: “Arguably the REF OA agenda has driven researchers to a compliance-centric view of OA, rather than providing them with positive choices to increase the reach of their work.” In my opinion, the authors have fallen into this same trap.

Contrary to what the authors state [my edit]: “A focus on OA detracts from enables opportunities to promote open research practices, which help to ensure that research is verifiable, replicated, and built upon.”

Adopt policies and services to assist OA

The authors state that “The REF OA agenda has had little positive effect on diversifying the range of submitted output types, different publication formats, and contributions from different members of the university community.” It may be the case that different formats are not as diverse as possible, but don’t blame Open Access for this. If university leaders are worried about lack of diversity in forms, then they should tackle that specific problem, and ensure that they put in place the mechanisms and policies to encourage and make it easy for authors to do so. Make it easy for researchers to adopt OA for all item types, and make it beneficial to them internally so that the researchers, research, the university and society benefits. 

Go beyond compliance

Here’s a thought. The University successfully (as far as I’m aware) ran an ‘Act on Acceptance’ initiative for the previous REF OA policy. This time, it could retain that practice and not only meet the proposed policy, but exceed it. Why go backwards when something has worked well, everyone has got into the swing of it, and it promotes the Open Scholarship that is desired? 

Shift the starting point

Once the maxim that Open Science is a global good is adopted – which I believe it has been at the University of Oxford – university senior management would in my opinion do well not to start with compliance. They should start from the premise of asking how they can put in place tools, policies, and support to motivate and enable Oxford researchers to make as many of their findings as possible available open access. 

OA compliance will then be an easily won secondary outcome – not an end in itself.


Sally Rumsey

Sally Rumsey was, until July 2022, Jisc’s OA Expert working as support for cOAlition S in all areas covered by Plan S, especially the Plan S Rights Retention Strategy. Prior to that, she was Head of Scholarly Communications & RDM, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. There she managed the University’s repository service for research outputs, Oxford University Research Archive (ORA and ORA-Data https://ora.ox.ac.uk). She was previously e-Services Librarian and manager of the repository at the London School of Economics. Sally remains a member of the UKSCL (Scholarly Communications Licence) group.