British Academy response to RCUK’s open access policy and guidelines

On 21 March 2013, the British Academy published a response to RCUK’s revised open access policy and guidelines. The statement contrasts the limited time period available for consultation unfavourably with the more considered approach being taken by HEFCE, and raises ‘particular concerns relating to the humanities and social sciences’.

A lack of clarity in the language relating to embargo periods is highlighted, and there is a suggestion that in some areas, the RCUK statement ‘appears to go beyond the current limits of government policy’. The British Academy’s position on licensing, and the use of CC-BY in particular, appears to differ somewhat from the most commonly rehearsed arguments, focusing on the creation of ‘derivative’ works rather than on, for example, commercial exploitation:

“Many articles in humanities and social science disciplines are the product of single-author scholarship, where there is more of a claim on ‘moral rights’ that are not adequately protected under an unrestricted CC-BY licence. We believe that an ‘Attribution-NoDerivs’ licence (CC-BY-ND) will often be more appropriate for the humanities and social sciences.”

The Academy also calls for more information about the timing and nature of reviews of the policy and its effects after 2014.

The statement concludes:

“We welcome the fact that RCUK, in its revised guidance document published in March 2013, has taken on board some of the points raised by the Committee, and put to it by the Academy and other bodies, but believe that further revisions need to be made. One important reason for such further revisions is to reflect the specific needs of the humanities and social sciences.”

In order to begin to capture some of these specific needs in more detail, the British Academy has now launched a survey relating to the ‘Impact of OA publishing on HSS learned societies and subject organisations’.

Open access – gathering the evidence

The last six months have seen a large number of open access events, and at all of them there has been some discussion about the need to gather evidence – whether of the benefits of open access, its potential effect on learned societies, current publishing practice, or researcher attitudes to and awareness of OA. The first steps to addressing some of these questions are now being taken. The publisher Taylor & Francis, for example, recently conducted a survey of its authors’ views about and behaviour related to open access. A total of 14,769 responses were received, and while they have not yet been fully analysed, early findings are at least suggestive. Attention has been given first to ‘licensing, reuse, peer review and metrics’, and the survey revealed that 79% of respondents remain in favour of rigorous peer of their work when published on an open access basis, 68% are happy with the idea of non-commercial re-use of their material, and 70% feel that it is important for the general public to have access to their work. Of the 11,422 respondents who indicated their broad subject area, 9% (1,022) were from the humanities – the joint largest group. The full survey results are well worth looking at.

Turning to historians in particular, History UK (HE) has conducted two surveys (one aimed at heads of department, the other at individuals) charting the journal publication patterns of UK-based historians between 1 January 2008 and 31 December 2012. The responses – 17 departmental (encompassing 353 FTE) and 352 individual (encompassing 273 REF Category A staff and 79 others) – are an interesting insight into current, largely non-OA activity. Among the key findings are that the average (mean) number of articles published per FTE over the four-year period was three; just 10% of articles were co-authored; and 37% of articles were published in overseas journals. For those REF Category A researchers who responded, 14% of articles had already been made available via gold open access; and 72% of this cohort published their first work in a journal rather than as a monograph. See HistoryUK Open Access Publishing Survey results (PDF) for the full survey results.

Neither of these surveys, of course, presents the whole picture, and no doubt there are methodological issues that could be discussed, but they are the beginning of what I hope will be a useful and enlightening exploration of the academic publishing process.

A response to the RCUK OA guidelines from early career researchers (History Lab Plus)

Early career researchers and independent scholars are in favour of Open Access to disseminate research but also to make available research that is often ‘inaccessible’ without affiliation to an institution in the years after PhD or as independent scholars.

The assumption by the RCUK policy of institutional repositories does not take into account that many researchers are not attached to an institution, especially independent scholars. Early career researchers (post PhD, post doc, teaching fellows, etc) do not have an institution throughout a REF cycle or are not on research contracts (teaching fellows) and would not be put forward for the REF at the institution in which they are employed at that given time. There needs to be some discussion on alternative repositories for those who are unattached to a university, rather than a blanket assumption that all researchers have an institution.

The RCUK policy regarding APC funds is unclear as to where they are available – especially for those only temporarily attached to institutions or not attached to an institution at all. Gold funds would not be easy to come by, making Green a more natural route. The embargo period, however, would need clarity and investigation on the benefits /pitfalls of short vs. long embargos especially for early career and independent researchers.

The RCUK policy needs to address all members of the community – PhDs, early career and independent scholars – to date, RCUK and HEFCE have not done so.

Dr Kimm Curran, Chair, History Lab Plus


The reach of an open access journal – the example of Reviews in History

In 1996, the Institute of Historical Research launched an online reviews journal, Reviews in History. The impetus for the journal came from a dissatisfaction with scholarly publishing in general, and with the publication of reviews in particular (is any of that sounding familiar?). The then director of the IHR, Patrick O’Brien, wrote that:

Despite the proliferation of new titles, historical journals have hardly changed in format, content and function for several decades … Critics of the way printed journals and their editors serve the profession welcome the challenge and the threat posed by electronic media to what they perceive as established structures of power …

The reason for focusing on reviews rather than on research articles was the

perception, widespread among historians, that too many reviews of scholarly publications … provide an unsatisfactory service for readers, are unhelpful to authors, disappoint publishers and are an unreliable guide to the contents, quality and significance of many history books now published …

The journal would offer what were then unique features: it would review scholarly works more rapidly and at far greater length than was possible in traditional print journals; and, crucially, it would offer authors a right of reply.

While the term ‘open access journal’ would not, of course, have been familiar to its editors, that is precisely what Reviews in History was and remains to this day. Nearly seventeen years on, almost 1,400 lengthy (3,000-word) reviews have been published, around a third with responses, and the journal has evolved to include social media elements (reader comments) and to adopt Creative Commons licensing for all essays (CC-BY-NC-SA).

The usage that a journal like Reviews in History enjoys is evidence of the general public interest in history, and of what happens when academic history is made freely accessible to that general public, as well as to researchers in higher education. In 2012 alone, 555,913 people visited the website, viewing a total of 1,018,906 pages. The most ‘popular’ essay, Steven Pierce’s review of A History of Nigeria, by Toyin Falola and Matthew Heaton (Cambridge, 2008), was viewed an impressive 7,201 times. The top ten most accessed reviews (all with page views in the thousands) include subjects as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr, mental disability in Victorian England, gender, work and education in 1950s Britain, and the early modern Dutch slave trade.

Inevitably, with the vast bulk of the usage resulting from search engine referrals, some of the people accessing Reviews in History will not have been expecting what they found (web statistics are a pretty blunt tool for qualitative analysis) – but the reach of a free online academic journal is undeniable.

There has been much discussion of reviews in the context of the move to open access. Given RCUK’s focus on peer-reviewed research articles and the gold route to open access, will there be a place for post-publication review in our scholarly journals at all? What will be the new economics of book reviewing? Conversely, there have been some fascinating experiments concerned with opening up pre-publication review (see, for example, the Shakespeare Quarterly special issue on ‘Shakespeare and the new media‘ and the History Working Papers Project), and debates about an increased role for post-publication review in qualitative assessment of research. What is clear from the example of Reviews in History, however, is that there is a large audience for reviews of historical publications, which extends beyond universities and is very well served by open access.

You can read more about the history and development of Reviews in History in ‘Reviews in History and peer review in the digital age‘ (2011).

Open access – a postgrad perspective

Kathleen McIlvenna, Institute of Historical Research, University of London (first published on The History Student blog)

Last Friday I went to the ‘Finch Report, Open Access and the Historical Community’ event organised by the Institute of Historical Research and the Royal Historical Society at Senate House.

I found it enlightening as well as a tad frustrating, but also hopeful. I’m not going to try and wade through all the arguments for and against Open Access or the processes and methods of rolling out Open Access across the discipline. As mentioned by many speakers at the event the blogosphere has been bursting with viewpoints and explanations. Here I wanted to touch on some areas I found interesting that I wanted to attempt to share in as straight forward and simple a way as possible.

Mark Llewellyn, from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, made a very valid point that communication regarding Open Access has not been as good as it should be. I think this is a serious problem as the move to open access will have massive implications for PhD students (not to mention the rest of academia) and has the potential to completely change how we work as academics. It also needs to be discussed outside of academia, as it’s the spending of public money that is at the core of this, and the point is to widen the reach of academia and current learning to the world beyond the academy; though the communication doesn’t have to only come from the policy makers and implementers and I feel it is our job as practitioners to also spread the word, hence this blog.

I hope you find it useful, and please do let me know if you think I’ve got anything wrong or if you’d like to share your feelings on the topic.

So, what did I find enlightening?
The existence of the event at all I think is very positive, it was well attended and had a great collection of speakers representing all aspects of the argument from journals and learned societies, to the research councils, publishers, funders like Wellcome and also History Lab plus, an organisation representing the interests of early career researchers. I thought the encouragement and interaction on twitter during the colloquium was great – I think social media channels like twitter have been invaluable in spreading the word amongst students.

It was good to hear from the publishers on the subject, and they are very well placed to discuss the differences in publishing for the arts and humanities disciplines compared to the STM disciplines. They also hold the relationships with the libraries and it was interesting to learn that the relationship between an article’s half-life (length of time until an article will have been read by half of its life time readership) could affect the likelihood of a library subscription. Philip Carpenter from Wiley gave the average half-life of a humanities article as 36 months, whereas a Chemistry article was 18 months – why pay for access to a journal, if it’s not likely to be read in the next year?

With this in mind, and with the realisation that most of the discussions pointed towards humanities going towards the green route over gold, it suggests that embargo lengths should be considered with half-lives in mind.

What did I find frustrating?
There are so many areas that appear unresolved and the concern at the speed things are moving was mentioned several times. The biggest issues appeared to be the tied up in the relationship between the REF (Research Excellence Framework), APCs (Article Processing Charge) and funding.

The Wellcome were strong advocates of project funding including the cost of the APC, detailing that it was only 1.5% of their funding costs. However there appeared to be strong feeling in the room that it wasn’t completely clear where other funding was supposed to come from – RCUK (Research Councils UK) were giving universities some, and the possible administration surrounding the delegation of this funding is worrying for many. The question still stands of who would pay for APCs on behalf of students, early career and independent scholars. They could just publish the traditional way, they publish for free and their work sits behind a paywall, but the problem is that to be considered under REF, work would have to be Open Access. Increasingly REF is not only important in assessing the work and impact of universities but is important for academic careers. Kimm Curran from History Lab Plus underlined the significance of this for early career researchers, the majority of whom (if they have a job) are often working part-time contracts. Wages are low and contracts short which could result in a decision over basic living costs or REF-applicable publication.

Alongside this is the questionable fate of humanities’ many journals and learned societies, many of which rely on publication profits to survive and fulfil a role in providing training, conference funding, book reviews and a variety of publications. Malcolm Chase, Chair of the Social History Society asked if societies would have to consider their offer for subscribing members if the publication became open access. Chase also brought up a concern over monographs and collections of essays, these are currently not under considered in proposals from Open Access, but if REF requirements stipulated items under consideration had to be Open Access it is a question of if this could remain that way.

Finally, what left me hopeful?
Though I didn’t feel like anything had been resolved at the late closing of the colloquium, I felt the history community had made some progress in promoting the peculiarities and value of the humanities peer review system. A short select committee in the House of Lords looking into Open Access, published on 22 February 2013, had acknowledged the lack of clarity in the current policy and the Research Councils are responding with a consultation document tomorrow. (See below for links)

As well as making concerns heard, useful questions were being asked, regarding monographs, and the type of licences work would have if open access, and also some clarity on the requirements of REF.

Research is being conducted in many relevant areas to help with some of these; Caren Milloy spoke on a project looking at open access of humanities and social science monographs gathering useful data on the area and holding a conference in July. I also realised my ignorance regarding the many Creative Commons licences available and realised we all need to brush up on these as they will become increasingly important.

Then, looking to postgraduates and early career academics, could they, amongst others (if not all), publish in alternative forums to journals to be open access and REF considerable? Could these be solely online journals or university repositories such as SAS-Space? However, journals and societies do provide other roles within academia, and publishers too play a role whether that is just marketing and the platform of publication, so this also needs to be considered.

Ultimately I was hopeful because as a community history practitioners do want open access and do want to share their discoveries and thoughts with the world. We also want to be able to welcome others to join our debates and discussions and so it feels the conversation needs to be widen.

The UK produces 6% of the global research output and we are part of a global academic community. It was a relief to hear from Peter Mandler, President of the Royal Historical Society, that discussions were being held with representatives from other disciplines, and I was glad a review of the situation is going to be made in 2014 by the RCUK. However, I came to the conclusion that these conversations need to be continued and expanded with considered policy and practice decided before blanket implementation.

Just some of the many web pages out there:

The IHR have storified the event here:

The Finch Report [opens PDF]:

Open Access Implementation Group:

Council for the Defence of British Universities stance on Open Access with other interesting links:

Research Excellence Framework:

Research Councils UK’s policy on Open Access:

RCUK’s revised guidance to be published 6 March 2013:

Lords Select Committee Report on Open Access (with links to report and summary):

Open Access Publishing in European Network project page – this is looking at open access of monographs:

Great piece on Open Access in Journal of Victorian Culture Online this explores the issues in much more depth than I have:

Royal Historical Society standpoint on Open Access, a letter to members in January 2013 [opens a PDF]:

An interesting blog on the Open Access issue from a STM background – should we get rid of the middle-man publishers?

April Fool’s Day: RCUK adds fuel to the Open Access fire

Derek Sayer, Professor of Cultural History at the University of Lancaster and Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta (first posted on the Coasts of Bohemia blog)

On March 6 Research Councils UK (RCUK), the umbrella organization representing all the major UK public research-funding bodies, published its latest policy document regarding Open Access (OA) publication.[1] Despite the far-reaching nature of the proposed changes to the academic publication landscape and the many objections that have come from learned societies and other stakeholders in the university sector, the document gives no time for consultation. The policy will come into effect in less than a month. All “peer-reviewed research papers, which acknowledge Research Council funding, that are submitted for publication after 1 April 2013 and which are published in journals or conference proceedings” must be “OA compliant.”

A journal is considered to be OA compliant either if it “provides, via its own website, immediate and unrestricted access to the final published version of the paper … using the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence” (Gold OA), or if it “consents to deposit of the final Accepted Manuscript in any repository, without restriction on non-commercial re-use and within a defined period” (Green OA). In the case of Gold OA, publishers can charge the author an Article Processing Charge (APC). With Green OA no APC is paid, but “RCUK will accept a delay of no more than six months between on-line publication and the final Accepted Manuscript becoming Open Access.” For the humanities and social sciences (HSS), this embargo period will be extended—for the time being—to twelve months.

Lest there be any room for doubt, the document is clear that “Journals which are not compliant with RCUK policy must not be used to publish research papers arising from Research Council funded work” (para. 3.1[iv]). If the top journal in your field does not offer OA options—which it may not do if it is not UK-based—tough luck.

I have commented at length on many of the issues surrounding OA in my response to HEFCE’s call for advice on Open Access and the REF, which I posted on this blog on March 4, 2013.[2] As I said there, I am not opposed to OA as such, but I regard the way it is being railroaded through in the UK as a serious threat to both the quality of British universities and the academic freedom of researchers. I shall not repeat those arguments here. But some additional points might usefully be made.

1. At present there is no restriction on where RCUK-funded authors may publish, but researchers can build the costs of APCs into grant applications. Under the new regime not only will RCUK-funded researchers be banned from publishing in non-OA compliant journals; in a major change of policy, “Research grant and fellowship applications with start dates on or after 1st April 2013 are no longer permitted to include provision for Open Access publication or other publication charges in respect of peer-reviewed journal articles and peer-reviewed conference papers.” RCUK will now provide each university or eligible research institution with a “block grant,” from which APCs will be paid. Each institution is required to establish “institutional publication funds, and the processes to manage and allocate the funds provided.” The document gives no guarantee that levels of funding available will be sufficient to meet demand for APCs, and provides no criteria for rationing publication funds should demand exceed supply. “Institutions,” the document says, “have the flexibility to use the block grant in the manner they consider will best deliver the RCUK Policy on Open Access in a transparent way that allocates funds fairly across the disciplines.”

Thus all funds to support payments of APCs will be channeled through universities, which can determine how to distribute those funds and where necessary—as it almost certainly always will be—to ration them. This may lead both to both discrepancies of policy across universities and consequent inequalities of opportunity to publish even among RCUK grant-holders. It also provides an institutional framework within which criteria other than the quality of papers as judged by peer review will inevitably play an important role in determining whether or not research gets published. By definition, any University Publications Committee is going to consist largely of people who are not experts in the relevant field, or even drawn from the same or a cognate discipline. What criteria are they supposed to use to guide their choices?

2. RCUK now explicitly recommend that “institutions should work with their authors to ensure that a proper market in APCs develops, with price becoming one of the factors that is taken into consideration when deciding where to publish. HEFCE’s policy on the REF, which puts no weight on the impact value of journals in which papers are published, should be helpful in this respect” (para. 3.5[ii]). In other words, where funds are tight universities may “encourage” researchers to publish not in the best journals in their field but the cheapest—and the “flexibility” given to universities to manage RCUK publication funds will allow them to reinforce this by withholding APCs from any authors who refuse to comply. Not only does this risk harming individuals’ careers and the international standing of UK research, in ways that are too obvious to need spelling out here. It is also an open invitation to cowboy “OA” publishers with no academic standing whatsoever to raid the UK market by offering cut-price outlets. My mailbox has been full of invitations to publish in such dubious “peer-reviewed” venues already.

3. “Monographs, books, critical editions, volumes and catalogues” remain exempt from the new RCUK policy, although we are told that: “RCUK encourages authors of such material to consider making them Open Access where possible.” Before researchers in the arts, humanities, and social sciences heave a collective sigh of relief we might remind ourselves that every wedge has a thin end. When RCUK first flirted with OA, back in 2005, it was also all about “encouragement.” Humanists might also note the caveat in the fine print (para. 3.6 [ii]) on embargos within Green OA: the 12-month embargo period for HSS papers, it says, “is only an interim arrangement, and RCUK is working towards enabling a maximum embargo period of six months for all research papers.”

4. Across the sector, the RCUK “aim is for 75 per cent of Open Access papers from the research we fund to be delivered through immediate, unrestricted, on-line access with maximum opportunities for re-use” (i.e. Gold OA) by the end of a 5-year “transition period.” It is notable that no rationale is given for why this period should by five years—a target set despite the document’s recognition that much in the OA landscape remains uncertain, especially at the international level. Should the UK turn out to be out of step with developments elsewhere, especially in continental Europe and North America, such targets for Gold OA may entail soaring costs for APCs in a context in which there has as yet been no compensating fall in journal subscription costs, compounding the financial problems that have underpinned the push toward OA in the first place. As others have said before, the Gold OA model will only work economically if it is brought in globally.

5. As it happens, there are already clear indications that the UK is significantly out of step with the United States—by far the most important player in the global academic game. The Obama Administration’s recently announced OA policy differs from that espoused by RCUK (and HEFCE) in at least two major respects. First, the form of OA adopted is Green OA, NOT Gold (which is discussed nowhere in the relevant US document!);[3] second, the standard embargo period suggested is 12 months (as opposed to RCUK’s 6). The document is explicit that this is a “guideline” that may be varied according to the “timeframe that is appropriate for each type of research” (p.3).

Nature comments: “it is now clear that US public-access policy is taking a different direction from that in the United Kingdom, where government-funded science agencies want authors to pay publishers up front to make their work free to read immediately. This immediate open-access policy involves extra money taken from science budgets to pay publishers. NSF director Subra Suresh explained to Nature that he could not justify taking money out of basic research to pay for open access at a time when demand for the agency’s funding was high. With both the United States and Europe supporting delayed access to publications, the UK government looks increasingly isolated in its preference for immediate open access.”[4]

6. Finally, the US statement is also far more concerned with protecting the intellectual property rights of authors against the risks of abuse that some have argued are inherent in the CC-BY License, and explicitly charges research funding agencies to come up with plans “to help prevent the unauthorized mass redistribution of scholarly publications” (p. 3). Notwithstanding its acceptance that CC-BY may “more easily enabl[e] misattribution, misquoting, misrepresentation, plagiarism, or otherwise referencing materials out of context, which may be damaging to the interests of authors” (para. 3.7[iii]), RCUK remains committed to its introduction for (eventually) 75% of the papers resulting from RCUK support.

The White House has made clear that “The Obama Administration is committed to the proposition that citizens deserve easy access to the results of scientific research their tax dollars have paid for.”[5] I have no quarrel with that proposition. But to argue that just because university research is publicly funded it should therefore be made immediately and freely available for anybody to use more or less as they wish is a non sequitur. It is rather like arguing that because government subsidizes the arts, all operas, concerts, and exhibitions should be free—or because the BBC is entirely funded by taxpayers’ money, anybody should be free to duplicate and use its TV and radio programs for whatever purpose they want. Were we talking about films or music, of course, RCUK’s “Open Access” would be regarded as a charter for piracy.

[1] RCUK Policy on Open Access and Supporting Guidance, available at: All quotations from this source unless otherwise noted.

[2] More on Open Access: HEFCE brings out the big REF stick, available at:

[3] Executive Office of the President, MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES, 22 February 2013, available at

[4] White House announces new Open Access Policy, available at:

[5] Ibid.

The Finch Report, open access and the historical community

On Friday 1 March 2013, the Institute of Historical Research and the Royal Historical Society organised a free colloquium on the subject of ‘The Finch Report, open access and the historical community’. The event was attended by more than 120 people, who heard from representatives of learned societies, journal editors, publishers, librarians and early career researchers. There was lively and informative debate both within the room and on Twitter, and the latter has been summarised using Storify

Two things that emerged very clearly from the discussions are that there is a need for clearer communication and the better sharing of information if researchers are fully to understand the implications and possibilities of open access; and that there is a requirement to gather evidence to inform the process. It is the aim of this website to help to do both.