Open-access publishing models will end once and for all the outdated and expensive production of little-read monographs that "exist for the purposes of existing".
The prediction was made in a debate titled Open Access: The New Future of Academic Publishing? at the British Academy, where William St Clair, senior research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, said that the print-only monograph was now little more than "a union card to apply for jobs in academia - if there are any".
Mr St Clair, who is also co-founder and chairman of Open Book Publishers, said the typical university press monograph "is printed in an edition of 500 copies, much the same number as in the 18th century. They are priced at about £60 to £100.
"Of these, about 300 are sold to rich universities in the US, where they may attract a handful of readers each. On any reasonable estimate of the cost of producing this knowledge [which may have required five years' research], every act of reading must cost - what can we say? - £20,000."
Yet Mr St Clair suggested that open-access publishing had eliminated this absurdity, bringing into the debate "the millions of well-educated English-speaking scholars in China, India, Eastern Europe and elsewhere".
It also offered other benefits: for example, making it easier to update work, improving interaction with readers and providing digital search facilities.
"With a wide range of humanities subjects ranging from anthropology to endangered languages to Russian literature, it is possible for authors for the first time to address those most concerned and to engage with them," Mr St Clair said.
Speaking at the same event last week, Deborah Shorley, director of library services at Imperial College London, said that Imperial now pays Elsevier more than £1 million for its journals each year, underlining the need for "concerted action".
"Open access covers an enormous range of models and may not be the answer, but it's the only show in town," she said.
Alice Prochaska, principal of Somerville College, Oxford, noted that libraries and archives had invested huge resources in digitisation projects to make their collections openly available and to protect fragile manuscripts from handling.
Yet far from discouraging visitors, this had produced exactly the opposite effect, since scholars inevitably wanted to see the originals.
Asked for concrete policy proposals, Ms Shorley suggested that it should be obligatory for material submitted to the research excellence framework to be openly accessible, while Mr St Clair proposed a concerted campaign "for open access and against perpetual copyright".