The UK’s New HEFCE/REF OA Mandate Proposal

David Sweeney’s new HEFCE/REF OA mandate proposal for consultation comes very close to providing the optimal OA mandate model:

(1) It separates the date on which deposit must be made (immediately upon acceptance for publication, with no differences across disciplines) from the date on which the deposit must be made OA (preferably immediately, but, at the latest, within an allowable embargo whose length will be adapted to the needs of each discipline).

(2) It specifies that the deposit must be made in the author’s institutional repository (whence the metadata can be exported or harvested to institution-external discipline repositories immediately — and the full-text once any embargo has elapsed).

(3) It makes immediate-deposit (but not immediate-OA) an eligibility precondition for submission to research evaluation (REF), thereby (very sensibly) recruiting institutions in monitoring and ensuring timely compliance with the mandate.

(4) It expresses no preference for gold OA publishing, leaving authors free to publish in whatever journal they choose.

(5) It expresses a preference for licensing certain re-use rights, but again leaves this to author choice.

I have been a strident critic of the Willetts/Finch/RCUK policy’s preference for gold over green and its constraints on authors’ freedom of journal choice. This new HEFCE mandate proposal would remedy all that and would make the UK’s OA mandate once again compatible with green OA mandates the world over — indeed, with (3) and (4) it provides the all-important compliance-verification mechanism that most OA mandates still lack.

I hope that once they have seriously reflected upon and understood this new mandate proposal, researchers and their institutions will see that it moots all the objections that have been raised to the Finch/RCUK mandate. And I profoundly hope that David Willetts will realize and understand that too.

I also hope that those who are impatient for immediate, embargo-free OA, CC-BY licenses and Gold OA will allow this HEFCE compromise mandate to be adopted and succeed, rather than trying to force their less urgent, less universal, and much more divisive conditions into the policy yet again.

The price of Green OA (per paper deposited) is negligibly small, compared to Gold OA. And institutional repositories are already created and paid up (for a variety of purposes) but they remain near-empty of their target OA content — unless deposit is mandated.

Green deposit mandates have to have carrots and sticks to be effective. Funder mandates provide the carrot/stick for institutions (funding eligibility — and enhanced impact — if you deposit; ineligibility if you don’t)

Double-paying publishers pre-emptively for gold now is fine — if you have effectively mandated a green deposit mandate for all articles first (and you have the extra cash to double-pay publishers for subscriptions and gold).

But if you have not effectively mandated a green deposit mandate for all articles first, instead double-paying publishers pre-emptively for gold is not only a gratuitous waste of scarce research money, but a counterproductive retardant on OA growth, both in the UK and worldwide (in encouraging subscription publishers to offer hybrid gold and to increase their embargo lengths on green in order to ensure that UK authors must pick and pay for gold).

(Where gold [or a fee waiver] is offered for free to authors (& their institutions) by a journal they freely choose as suitable, authors are of course welcome to choose it — as long as they also deposit their article in their Green OA institutional repository, just as everyone else is mandated to do.)

Global green OA grows anarchically, not journal by journal. If and when competition from green starts causing journal cancellations, journals will be forced to start cutting costs by downsizing, phasing out the obsolete print and online edition and offloading all access-provision and archiving onto the global network of green OA institutional repositories. The institutional cancellation savings will then (single-) pay for post-Green Fair Gold at an affordable, sustainable price (for peer review alone).

To instead double-pay publishers pre-emptively for gold now (in the name of “cushioning” the transition) while publishers promise to “plough back” all Gold OA double-payment into subscription savings (all publishers? all subscribers?) is simply to give publishers a license to keep charging as much as they like and never bother to do the cost-cutting and downsizing that universal mandatory green would force them to do.

If the UK double-pays for Gold pre-emptively rather than first effectively mandating Green for all UK research output, it has chosen the losing option in an unforced Prisoner’s Dilemma: the UK loses and the rest of the world gains. Less an admirable moral stance or idealism or a “front-mover” advantage than an unreflective and somewhat stubborn rush for Fool’s Gold.