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Policy compliance and author engagement

12 Jun 2015

Bill Hubbard, Director, Centre for Research Communications, University of Nottingham

The policy environment for open access in universities and research institutions in the UK has developed over the last 10 years into a complex and demanding interlocking set of requirements, requests, restrictions and prohibitions. For an author who may not be used to engaging with open access and whose working habits, up to now, may not necessarily have touched on open access, the complexity is daunting and in many cases sufficient to turn them from the idea altogether.

The policy for the next REF of requiring deposit for material to be eligible, is probably the single most significant policy development of recent years. Compared with previous funder policies requiring an escalating level of compliance over a number of years, the REF policy is not asking for high levels of compliance as such – but saying that only material which does comply will be eligible, leaving the amount of material that complies up to the institution. And of course to safeguard future REF submissions institutions want the greatest level of compliance possible right from the start in April 2016.

This requirement is now driving institutional responses which are taking in compliance with other relevant policies – funders’, institutional and publishers’ and the sometimes tangled interplay between them.

Institutions have looked at the complexity of the environment and realised that individual academics cannot be expected to get to grips with it without extensive support, advocacy and focused information to change in publishing habits and workflows. Faced with the need to secure REF eligibility some institutions have taken a shortcut past such advocacy and decided that authors should be taken out of the response package as much as possible. The result is that support services in some institutions have been given the task of responding to policy requirements without the engagement of authors.

This represents a drift away from seeing academic practice at the heart of what open access should be about. It would be ironic if the most significant open access policy development ended up taking open access practice away from authors.

One practical objection is that by taking authors out of the compliance process, institutions lose contact with the information flow about manuscript submission that is needed.

For instance, how does a compliance support officer know when an article has been accepted for publication? The author might be unknown to them, with unknown grant requirements and unknown publishing permissions and at an unknown time. Without an effective information flow that tells the support officer exactly when to intervene, when to expect an article for deposit, what grant was used, etc support offices can be left with an almost impossible task.

This is leading to libraries attempting to forge new relationships with academics by putting support staff and institutional systems into the workflow of article production, publication and the correspondence with publishers. By and large this is a new position for support staff and this can be more or less comfortable for these staff and authors. This is an area where publishers could help in supplying information about the stages and status of articles, but this would require change in the author/publisher relationship which might not be welcome without the right incentives.

Some institutions are responding to the challenge by extending the idea of a mediated archiving service to being that all archiving work belongs in the library. Such approaches typically mean that the work of archiving is passed onto repository staff, with the consequence that the responsibility is also passed on and leaves the academic author.

If this happens, then there is a real danger that academics will be untouched by the larger move to open access and will still see their publication workflow as being the same as before, when, like it or not, it has changed. While this might have a temporary advantage in getting a service running right away, in the long term it does academics, the practice of open access and the practice of policy compliance no favours. It removes responsibility from the authors, (who will, in the long run, have to adopt open access practices anyway) and begins to hide labour costs and workflows from the authors as well.

Such an approach sets up new centralised costs and workflows on behalf of authors, where authors are unaware of the complexity and where the result of authors’ publishing behaviour are concealed from them. Libraries have been down this path before in dealing with subscription costs behind-the-scenes and handling subscription packages on behalf of authors. Such work has provided a effective service but it has been often meant that the resource that libraries put into dealing with subscriptions has been under realised and under valued by academics. Academics have felt free to change their behaviour or make demands on the service without realising the hidden knock-on effects for the library.

Is this how we want open access to be regarded? Something hidden from academics, taken out of their responsibility and their knowledge? I would suggest not. Rather I would suggest that open access should be part of an academic’s work and responsibility, part of the work that an institution expects from its academics and that policy compliance, properly supported with systems, information and advocacy, is seen in the same way.

In summary, I do not believe that an institution can mount an effective policy compliance response without engaging the authors in an appreciation of their rights and responsibilities under all of the different policies that apply to them. In the longer term I do not believe that open access can ever reach its potential without authors being active participants in wanting and creating open access to research materials. In advocacy terms the REF policy presents institutions with a policy directly related to academic success and esteem. Authors are already used to having to respond to new demands under the label 'REF'. It is hard to think of a better headline term to catch authors’ attention for effective advocacy work to put authors at the heart of open access practice.

On 19 May 2015 Bill presented a UKSG webinar on OA policies – 'Getting the rights right: or when policies collide!' – which generated considerable interest and raised concerns, some of which have been addressed in this editorial. It is possible to register to receive a link to a recording of the webinar by sending an e-mail to Maria Campbell.

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