Government-funded researchers could be required to post their publications online from next April.
Proposals from the umbrella body for all research councils could mean that up to 15,000 academics - the number in receipt of council grants at any one time -will have to place a copy of their published journal articles in an e-print repository on their university or subject-based website.
Under the proposals from Research Councils UK, published work would not necessarily go online immediately.
Academics and publishers would be allowed a grace period, which could last anywhere from a few months up to several years. The publisher would determine the exclusion period and would have to make sure that contributors are aware of its length.
Consultation on the RCUK proposals closed last month. RCUK expects to implement the proposals by April 2006, pending agreement with the Office of Science and Technology.
The proposals would allow academics, if they choose, to publish their work in author-paid open-access journals, which all UK research councils will fund.
Tim Berners-Lee, father of the worldwide web, has expressed his backing for the proposal. Together with representatives of Cambridge, Loughborough, Sheffield and Strathclyde universities, he wrote to Ian Diamond, chair of the RCUK executive group.
The letter states: "We believe that the RCUK should go ahead and implement its immediate self-archiving mandate, without delay."
Other supporters of open-access publishing claim that there could be significant financial benefits for ordinary researchers, whose citations would rise dramatically as a result of open-access publishing.
Stevan Harnad, professor of cognitive science at Southampton University, said that if citations rose by 50 to 250 per cent because of online open-access publishing, researchers could gain more than £2.5 million a year in potential salary increases, grants and funding renewals.
Another benefit of online open-access publishing would be that academics and researchers would no longer have to rely on their institutions to provide access to articles published in subscription-only journals, Professor Harnad added.
He told The Times Higher : "It's important to make clear that research that is not used might as well not have been done."
But academic publishers have been alarmed. During the consultation on the proposals, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) questioned the benefits.
In a letter to RCUK signed by Sally Morris, chief executive of the ALPSP, the association described the proposed policy as a "disastrous scenario" and claimed that online open-access would destroy the process of quality control and peer review, thus depriving the research community of the "value and prestige" of journal publication.
Adrian Pugh, policy and support manager for the RCUK secretariat, told The Times Higher : "The real issue is making research readily available. We will continue to engage with interested parties - it is still a live topic."
He added that the RCUK did not wish to see any curtailment of the potential benefits of online self-archiving, either in terms of revenue and access.
Universities are not obliged to implement a repository system, which costs about £80,000 to set up and about £40,000 a year in maintainance.
The Joint Information Systems Committee, which promotes the use of information technology in higher education, is investing in online repositories over the next three years, beginning with £10 million in 2006.
Philip Rothen, a Jisc spokesman, said: "We have just started a £4 million digital repository programme. The idea is for all the universities to have one."
The Wellcome Trust has already announced that, from October 1, all its research projects must be deposited digitally within six months of publication.