OA requirement for monographs will ‘benefit society’, says Hill

OA requirement for monographs will ‘benefit society’, says Hill

In a controversial presentation at last month’s University Press Redux Conference, Steven Hill, head of policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, confirmed that all long-form narrative work, including monographs, must be published Open Access in order to qualify for the 2027 Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Hill said that new business models would be needed "to allow funding to channel into OA long-form publishing", including institution-funded OA presses, freemium models, aggregator or distributor models such as Knowledge Unlatched, and the "author pays" model. He also spoke of opportunities to innovate in monograph publishing through what he termed "decoupling the academic book", i.e. separating out the publishing process into its different functions so that they can be performed by different bodies with a greater degree of innovation. He cited open source software Open Review Toolkit and writing and publishing workflow Leanpub as examples.

Hill’s presentation was met with anger by some publishers, who criticised poor communication from HEFCE and a lack of consultation about a planned change which will have far-reaching implications for their business. They pointed to a lack of clarity as to what the funding allocation will be for OA monographs, and highlighted unintended negative consequences from the policy, given that academics publish with a wide range of international presses and US university presses, as a whole, are not following an OA model.

Meanwhile one publisher, who preferred to speak anonymously, described Hill’s "decoupling" comments as "an inexplicable direct attack on a thriving industry which fulfils the essential functions of development (through peer review), curation, dissemination and promotion".

Why has communication about the coming REF requirement for OA monographs not been clearer to all publishers across the industry?
Our primary target for communication is generally universities and the staff that work within them, [although] there are areas around scholarly communications where we have to be aware there are other stakeholder groups. To an extent, we might expect authors who become aware of changes to policy around scholarly communications to be communicating those [changes] to the publishers they work with.

Having said that, one of the key ways in which we have discussions about scholarly communications and policies in that space, at a national level, is through the Universities UK Open Access Co-ordination Group; that group is made aware of policy developments and was certainly made aware of the intention we announced in December 2016 around OA monographs. There are members in that group who are members of the Publishers Association and the Association of Learned & Professional Society Publishers, so we view that as a key communication group as well and we hope they will pass that information on. The Open Access Co-ordination Group has a sub-group on OA monographs and I know it is thinking quite seriously about what it needs to do over the coming months in terms of engaging with the full range of stakeholders.

What is the timescale of the consultation now planned with publishers?
The chief executive of UK Research & Innovation [the new higher education body which comes into being on 1st April], Mark Wolpert, announced in a speech on OA last week an intention to review OA policies in the round. The first step is to feed these discussions on monographs into that review. We don’t have the exact timeline, but it will be starting soon and I’m sure there will be opportunity for discussion and consultation and calls for evidence and all of that. The intention is to report within the year, then we will be able to think about the precise details around the policy for long-form scholarly output for REF 2027.

We are committed to introducing the policy but at the same time we want to be sure we don’t disadvantage people who have been preparing monographs for a number of years, so I think we can say with some certainty there will be exceptions in the policy that will accommodate activity which is already under way, or may be initiated in the time between now and when we finally work out what the details of the policy will be.

What are the drivers for such a strong push to make long-form narrative OA?
There are a number of drivers around OA that apply across all disciplines and all forms of scholarly output. One is simply maximising the benefit of research findings by maximising the number of people who can access them. There are well-articulated cases around medical research and the value that patient groups and medical practitioners can get from accessing scholarly literature, but there are also areas in long-form research which are relevant to policy. The second driver is one of principle: that the research, by and large, is funded out of public funds, and the idea that there are ethical arguments around the fact that it is not accessible to the people who funded it. The third driver, which applies across journal articles and scholarly monographs, is the opportunities that better access to the full text opens up for enhancements to the process of research; the ability to carry out text mining that will enable scholars to discover work they might not have discovered; to access work in new ways; and to hone in on particular parts of a lengthy work that are of relevance to [a particular academic’s] research questions. I don’t think cutting costs is a driver particularly. We may have debates about whether there are efficiencies to be gained in the system, but I don’t think the primary driver is cutting costs.

What is the evidence that academics in the humanities and social sciences are calling en masse for this development?
There is evidence that there are researchers who see these benefits and are keen to see them realised; I don’t think there is a call en masse for these benefits, and I think some of them are not well understood or well articulated necessarily within the academic community. On the journals side, there are plenty of academics who would advocate for more openness but I don’t think in that space there is particularly a mass movement [either], in that there are lots of researchers who would happily continue with the way things are.

So what is the policy based on?
Our role is to have policies which serve society. So our position on this is that we need to see that society as a whole gets the maximum benefit from the investment we make on behalf of society and taxpayers in research. Clearly the research community itself is an important stakeholder for us; and clearly we need to understand their views and what the risks and limitations are around OA. But we are charged with spending taxpayers’ money and making sure it is used as effectively as possible, and the push towards OA is driven by that.

Who is currently excluded from accessing monographs?
Access to scholarly monographs is pretty much limited to researchers who are at institutions which have purchased access to the e-book or who are prepared to pay for the monograph out of their own pocket. There are parts of the scholarly community who struggle to access all of the content that they want to access. More broadly speaking, anyone outside [an institution] will find it hard to access the material.

But is there a significant number of people outside institutions keen to access the material?
It’s hard to answer. It’s hard for people to know what they want to access when they can’t discover it easily. There are certainly examples where access for independent schools, for example, has been difficult, or for policymakers. I regularly, as a policymaker, want to access content in books we just can’t afford to justify the cost of on a single-use basis.

How receptive do you see publishers being towards OA for long-form publishing?
It’s very diverse. You have some of the new university presses who have been established with a very clear mission around OA, so they are very positive about the agenda. You have other publishers who are recognising it as a feature of the future and are putting in place policies and approaches. And then there are other publishers who have done less in terms of that space and don’t really yet have options to offer that to authors.

You mentioned risks and limitations in OA monograph publishing. What is potentially problematic?
We need two things from the scholarly publishing system: it needs to be financially sustainable, so we need business models that enable people to operate—and in the for-profit space they need to operate and make a profit, too; and we need systems that allow the appropriate quality control, through peer review and associated processes, to be implemented. The risks and limitations are around those two things. If we have a system that is not financially sustainable, that kind of publication would not continue and that would not be good. That financial sustainability needs to be achieved in a way that continues to provide those quality control mechanisms. Anything that undermines those two things is potentially a risk.

What can you say about funding at this stage?
Not very much, really. The UK Open Access Monographs Group has done some analysis of the funding requirement of OA monographs on the scale we are talking about, and its conclusion is that the total amount of funding is not out of scale. It’s a relatively small proportion. But the challenge is how you channel that funding. At the moment, part of the funding is spent on research, and part is spent on acquisitions in [institutional] libraries, which are not necessarily going to be the same institutions that you might have in a more “author pays” funding model. So there are issues about where the funding is distributed.

But the second thing I’d say is that analysis is based on assumptions on current costs, and I think we need to be asking questions about whether there are [potential] efficiencies and whether those costs could be lower.

In your discussion of "decoupling the academic book", publishers felt you were indicating a wish to disrupt the current industry without regard to the editorial, sales and marketing expertise that established publishers offer.
I was trying to suggest that there might be alternative ways of doing things, and that we should investigate that. That’s not to say that those would necessarily be better, or to say that there is anything wrong with the current models, and that traditional publishing houses shouldn’t be important to OA. There may be opportunities for existing publishing houses in a more disrupted and decoupled world, where they focus on their particular areas of expertise and value-add, and perhaps move out of areas where other organisations could take on the role.

Can you give examples?
There’s the dissemination and archiving function, which is distinct from the review and quality assurance function. The [Impactstory co-founder] Jason Priem article "Decoupling the Scholarly Journal" [which says the "tight coupling" of the traditional journal is "choking out innovation"] talks about the notion of the overlay journal: it essentially relies on the hosting of the journal article on a pre-print or other server, and then a quality-assurance layer that’s applied above that on an overlay journal. Those overlay journals don’t do anything in terms of hosting or handling the text, apart from taking it, putting it out to peer review, and attaching a layer that identifies that quality assurance once it’s been done. I don’t see any reason why that type of model couldn’t be explored in long-form scholarly publishing. I don’t see that as necessarily disruptive to existing publishing houses, in that they could provide that type of overlay service on top of a repository-based publication of the text.

University press publishers strongly felt that since US university publishers are not taking up OA, the requirement for UK-funded researchers to publish OA will restrict academics from publishing with the presses they consider the natural home for their work. What’s your position on this?
If you look at our journal OA policy, we have a provision for researchers to say that the very best place for them to publish their work did not offer them any options to follow the policy, so I can imagine a similar type of exception existing in future. I do think that, in terms of having a conversation with academics and researchers about this, I would encourage them to reflect on the extended audience they might get from their book being OA, and how they would trade that off against reaching the audience on a particular press or being on a particular list. It is not just a simple question: "I think this US university press is the absolutely best place to publish this work." What is the motivation for that choice? And if the motivation is to do with the scale and nature of the audience, I think you have to think what the scale and nature of the audience would be in other contexts.

You are putting a lot of emphasis on new, relatively untried models, such as UCL Press’ three-year-old institution-funded model, which relies on the continuing commitment of UCL’s senior management in order to continue. By contrast, you seem to be discounting an established industry that has a great deal of expertise and knowledge, which embraces change but embraces change sustainably, and which contributes a lot to the UK’s economy.
I think I’d come back to the fact that we are seeking to bring about a change here, and that change is better access to scholarly output in general. That’s the high-level policy objective. Financial sustainability is a key part of that. There would be no point in us switching the entire scholarly publishing system to an OA model that five years later was unavailable because it wasn’t financially sustainable. That wouldn’t have achieved our objective. [The existence of] UCL Press is down to the university and how it spends its funds; it sees this as part of its scholarly infrastructure. The Library of the Humanities is a different model again, supported by a philanthropic organisation. Again, that will play out and we will see the direction that that goes in.

I take your point that there are some risks, but extending scholarly literature as far as possible is our aim, and it is inevitable we will see some changes in how that is brought about over time. It’s hard to see how we could bring about that change in increased dissemination and increased access without some change in the underlying infrastructure.

Have you had personal experience of publishing in the humanities and social sciences?
No, I haven’t. I come at this as an outsider looking in, merely observing what the world looks like from the outside, and having an interest in the overall policy in getting scholarly output to as many people as possible and enabling innovative forms of scholarship. I don’t think the right answer is to be an expert; the right answer is to make sure you consult widely and listen to the views that stakeholder groups put forward, in the knowledge that sometimes those views will be in conflict with one another. Ultimately you have to, in policy development, make a call. You can’t just do what all the communities you serve want you to do.