Open access policy mandates have never been an effective way of convincing researchers of the benefits of exploring alternative, open publishing practices. Forcing someone to do something will not help them engage with the reasons for doing it. Instead, the mandate feels like a simple tickbox exercise that can be ignored once fulfilled. Apathy and begrudging acceptance have been the response of many researchers to the open access policy of the Research Excellence Framework, which many see as a top-down imposition with which they comply just to get their head of department off their back.

Last week, UKRI announced its proposed updates to the open access policy for the next REF, which now includes monographs and other book-based outputs including edited volumes and scholarly editions (but not, despite the initial confusion, trade books). All eligible books submitted to the REF that are under contract from January 2026 would have to be made openly available no later than two years after publication (either in a repository or the final version of record on the publisher’s site). UKRI are currently consulting on these proposals and they are not set in stone.

To be sure, this is a gentle policy for which no additional funds have been earmarked by UKRI. In a recent article for Times Higher Education, Steven Hill, chair of the REF 2029 steering group, commented that “the proposed policy for monographs is permissive of a range of routes to open access, some of which have low or zero upfront costs.” A two-year embargo is something that can be negotiated with a publisher at the contract stage. Ideally, the final version of record would be deposited in the repository — buoyed by arguments that immediate open access does not negatively impact sales — but the final accepted version is also acceptable to UKRI. This is all possible with no fees being paid to the publisher, but it does require the publisher to prioritise their commitment to the scholarly community over a shorter term focus on commercial returns.

Yet in the same THE article, we also see responses by researchers worried about losing “career-making opportunities” or about universities “rationing who gets to write books”. Richard Carr writes that the policy would:

lead to hundreds of thousands of pounds universities don’t really have being transferred to private publishers…and won’t achieve anything that mandating a free public facing blog or two outlining said output’s content/impacts wouldn’t”

Again, forcing researchers to do something is a sure way of getting them to push back on it, not least when it’s tied to the much-loathed Research Excellence Framework. Yet it’s troubling how these over-the-top reactions in THE article are couched in a logic of self-interest that entirely ignores the possible benefits not just of open access but of working towards more ethical publishing practices more generally. These responses, primarily coming from senior figures in the humanities and social sciences, arise from a position that does not consider the need to make radical changes to publishing behaviours for the collective good.

This is what I find most frustrating with the responses based on the fact that researchers will now have to start paying high BPCs or lose book contracts is that it is a purely defensive argument grounded in self-interest and conservatism (nor is it even accurate). A lot of the discussion on social media also centered on annual royalties, which for academics are minimal and would almost certainly be untouched under the current OA policy.

Lucy Barnes wrote an excellent Twitter thread on the myths that were circulating about open access books, which you (hopefully if I can still embed tweets) read here:

Lucy also helpfully points to the rich ecosystem of open access presses that do not charge BPCs. Many of these are researcher-led and many are based within universities. They are part of our research communities and are our colleagues, not private companies looking to funnel off cash from our free labour and content. University presses will also grant requests to make an embargoed version of the book open access; it just takes a conversation rather than an automatically defensive approach that they will refuse you.1 Publishing with these presses contributes to a much better culture of knowledge dissemination than the BPC-led cultures of commercialised presses.

So these kinds of overreactions to a pretty gentle open access books policy betray something much greater about the state of arts, humanities and social sciences in the UK. By all means push back on the cultures imposed by policy instruments like the REF, but do so from a position that wants to stimulate solidarity and a collectivising response to the current brutal assault on our disciplines in the UK. Open access book publishing done correctly does help us work towards a more ethical way of producing and sharing knowledge. It can allow us to stimulate new forms of authorship, explore collective forms of feedback and dissemination, and experiment with what the book even is in a digital age. While these practices are not present within the REF policy, they are not entirely absent from it either.

Clearly the REF contributes to the logic of individualism I am writing against, but that does not mean we can’t use its requirements to nurture better cultures of publishing for our communities. As we have increasingly outsourced knowledge production processes (and career decisions) to a commercial publishing industry, shouldn’t we be looking for reasons to return scholarly communication to research communities and away from the hands of the market all while making our research freely available to anyone who wants access? Probably…

  1. My forthcoming book with University of Michigan Press will be published open access with no fees. MIT Press will offer the same. ↩︎