With the funding bodies’ Initial decisions on the Research Excellence Framework 2021 published at the beginning of September including a paragraph on ‘open research’ we consider what this might mean as the REF takes shape.

29. The revised template will also include a section on ‘open research’, detailing the submitting unit’s open access strategy, including 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. The panels will set out further guidance on this in the panel criteria. 

Initial decisions on the Research Excellence Framework 2021 (pg 9)

While still some way from full Open Access in the UK we are getting closer, largely thanks to HEFCE’s “Policy for open access in the post-2014 Research Excellence Framework” which came into effect in 2016, on April Fools’ day in fact. Nevertheless it has been taken very seriously. REF is no laughing matter!

The REF has sometimes been maligned as an expensive bureaucratic exercise ill-fitted for purpose, yet the goal of promoting the value and impact of publicly funded research is surely worthwhile and as advocates for all things ‘open’, it at least provides a stick on which to dangle our carrots.

In lieu of the further guidance promised, can we pre-empt some of the activity and initiatives that might contribute to ‘open research’ above and beyond the REF open access policy requirements?

N.B See the updated HEFCE FAQ, specifically:

7.1. What aspects of OA should submitting unit’s include in the environment statement section titled ‘open research’?

Research Data

It is good to see this referred to explicitly at this early stage, following on from the Concordat on Open Research Data published in July 2016 focused on ensuring that research data is made openly available wherever possible.

In actual fact research data was already an eligible output for REF in 2014 and the exercise in 2021 will continue to assess “all types of research and forms of research output”. Nevertheless infrastructure and best practice around RDM are still developing. At Leeds the RDL team based in the Library provide support and advice throughout the research lifecycle. We run an institutional data repository providing long term, secure storage and associating data with a Digital Object Identifier (DOI), a persistent identifier that will facilitate formal citation. Alternatively use the Registry of Research Data Repositories (r3data) to identify a suitable discipline specific repository.

Other useful organisations include Jisc and the Digital Curation Centre.

Potential questions for REF2021:

  • Is the data underpinning your submitted outputs safely stored according to best practice?
  • Is that data openly available (if appropriate) or is it clear how it can be accessed (i.e. does the paper include a suitable data statement)?
  • Has your data been reused by other researchers / initiated collaboration?
  • Do you have established protocols for data management planning that is followed for all research projects?


ORCID is an open, non-profit, community-based initiative that provides a unique identifier to reliably differentiate individual authors and enables connections between systems. Linking your ORCID to Symplectic, for example, will provide an additional method for the system to reliably identify your published work and add it to your Symplectic profile, your ORCID will also be passed over to the White Rose Research Repository (WRRO) when you deposit a manuscript.

ORCID increasingly underpins an open scholarly infrastructure, nationally and internationally and is also supported by Jisc.

Related post: So you’ve got an ORCiD…what next?

Potential questions for REF2021:

  • Do all of your submitted authors have an ORCID?
  • Are they using their ORCID profile effectively?
  • Are you actively using ORCID to integrate systems and improve workflows?


Another area that is discussed in the document which identifies “an explicit focus on the submitting unit’s approach to supporting collaboration with organisations beyond higher education” (pg 6, para 18).

The benefits of open research to collaboration opportunities with such organisations are obvious, whether the NHS or SMEs who may not otherwise be able to find or access the research and data they need to further their own mission. Perhaps there is also a question here of targeted dissemination, via social media for example – making research available online doesn’t mean the right people will simply stumble across it.

Potential questions for REF2021:

  • Have you adopted open research practices that are conducive to collaboration?
  • To what extent have these been successful?
  • Are you proactively building and monitoring a network around your research (e.g. by leveraging alternative metrics)?


The document  acknowledges that work is required to align definitions of ‘academic impact’ and ‘wider impact’ which relate respectively to the assessment of outputs and the impact element of the REF. Notably the weighting for impact has increased from 20% to 25% – as was in fact originally proposed for the 2014 exercise.

There will be additional guidance on the criteria for both ‘reach and significance’ and impact arising from public engagement – it is not hard to anticipate how an open research agenda will feed into each of these. There is evidence that OA increases traditional citations for example while developments in alternative or “altmetrics” are enabling online social activity around research to be recorded and measured. 

Repository downloads also provide a valuable article level metric, indeed we might expect correlation with traditional citations, even causation. The IRUS-UK* service provides COUNTER compliant download statistics for the majority of UK based repositories which means that downloads are standardised and filter out automated downloads by search engine robots for example.

* With 3,766,192 downloads since October 2013, and as might be expected for a consortium of 3 research intensive Universities, IRUS-UK reveals that the White Rose Research Repository is one of the most highly downloaded in the UK. Leeds accounts for 1,773,744 of those downloads.

Potential questions for REF2021:

  • To what extent are you engaging with audiences beyond academia?
  • Do you produce plain language precis of your research?
  • Are you exploiting social media to engage with academic and lay audiences (e.g. Twitter, blogs, Wikipedia)?
  • Are you analysing quantitative data from these sources?

Related post: Wikipedia, information literacy and open access

The Research Support team based on Level 13 of the Edward Boyle Library will continue to review REF guidelines as they are released and associated developments across the sector. You can get in touch by email or on Twitter.

In the meantime, you must ensure your research outputs meet the new REF open access requirements by depositing your author accepted manuscript via Symplectic as soon as possible after acceptance https://library.leeds.ac.uk/university-publications