Blog post

The changing open access landscape: REF2021

Lucy Ayre, Open Access Librarian at the University of Derby discusses the Research Excellence Framework as part of our series of blogs for Open Access Week.

By Lucy Ayre - 27 October 2017

Open Access

This year is the eighth annual International Open Access Week, and after working in university libraries throughout that time, I have observed the Open Access landscape evolving into a complex and multi-faceted movement, reaching much farther than the humble researcher and librarian.

Where did open access come from?

The principles of Open Access as we know them today were established in 2002 after discussions taking place at conference convened in Budapest by the now called Open Society Foundations. Since then researchers, publishers, funders and libraries have gradually been changing working practices to make freely available research a reality.

Today, researchers utilise social media and online networks to reach out to wider communities; funders issue mandates for Open Access research and data; librarians manage repositories to ensure researchers have a reliable place to self-archive their manuscripts; publishers largely have clear policies on self-archiving (aka Green Open Access), and introduce business models to publish research that is free at the point of access (aka Gold Open Access). These are just some examples of the work that has been going on behind the scenes to make quality, peer-reviewed research outputs available in just a couple of clicks.

However, there is more to being an Open Researcher than providing Open Access to research outputs. Universities are going to be expected to evidence ‘open research’ that goes above and beyond the REF open access policy requirements.

Open access policy

From a UK perspective the biggest driver behind Open Access academic journal articles has come from HEFCE’s Open Access Policy for REF2021. The policy, which more-or-less says that only those articles deposited in institutional or subject repositories will be eligible for REF, has been the main reason why submissions to UDORA have increased by more than 77% since the policy came into force in April 2016. However, there is much more to being an Open Researcher than simply depositing a journal article on UDORA, and in September HEFCE alluded to this by releasing initial decisions on REF2021.

The Initial decisions on the Research Excellence Framework 2021 states that there will be a revised template which will include a section on ‘open research’, detailing the submitting unit’s open access strategy. This will include where this goes above and beyond the REF open access policy requirements, and wider activity to encourage the effective sharing and management of research data.

Open Research Data

We can expect data to form a part of REF2021, as it was already considered an eligible output for REF2014. Making research data openly available wherever possible, was the bottom line of the Concordat on Open Research Data (Research Councils UK, 2016) but there are considerations required relevant to the legal, ethical, disciplinary and regulatory frameworks and norms; not to mention significant costs involved for institutions. Support for researchers will be required in how to write research data management plans, and by providing access or directing researchers to a suitable data repository. Currently, researchers can use the Registry of Research Data Repositories (r3data) to identify a suitable discipline specific repository.

Open Research Contributor ID (ORCID)

ORCID provides authors with a unique, persistent digital identifier that distinguishes an individual from every other researcher with the same name.  Through integration with manuscript and grant submission systems, it links together all professional activities by the same author ensuring that their work is recognised as their own. Linking your ORCID to UDORA, for example, will provide a way to easily link all your publications together. An author’s ORCID is also portable, meaning they take it with them between institutions. ORCID is recognised nationally and internationally by research funders as a means to integrate research systems and improve workflows, it is therefore expected to play a role in the large-scale research workflow of REF.


September’s announcement identified “an explicit focus on the submitting unit’s approach to supporting collaboration with organisations beyond higher education” (pg 6, para 18).

At the University, we recently interviewed Fiona Holland, Lecturer in Psychology and Peter Wiltshier, Lecturer in Tourism and Spa for our series of Open Access Week interviews. They talked about how collaboration early on in a research project has enabled them to produce successful research projects in the NHS and Local Government.


Notably in the initial decisions document the weighting for impact increased from 20% in REF2014 to 25% in REF2021. There are still distinctions to be made between ‘academic impact’ and ‘wider impact’, with guidelines on the criteria for both ‘reach and significance’ and impact arising from public engagement. However, there is a well-established link between open research practices and an increase in traditional citations, alongside alternative metrics measuring levels of social media and wider media coverage.

Downloads from institutional repositories provide a valuable alternative metric, which can correlate with traditional citations. The more readers a piece of research gets the more likely it is to be cited. From IRUS-UK, benchmarking service of download statistics for the majority of UK repositories, UDORA appears in the top 5 for our Jisc band with an average of 6,577 downloads per month.

There are plenty of ways to constitute good ‘open research’ practice, and strategies that bind the components together may be what’s required for REF2021.

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About the author

Lucy Ayre
Repository and Open Access Librarian

Lucy Ayre is Repository and Open Access Librarian. She manages the University of Derby’s Online Research Archive (UDORA) and supports staff and students by raising awareness of Open Access research. She has recently been reflecting on where Open Access books will fit into the equation of academic publishing, research and student learning.