An offer of block grants to help universities meet the cost of open-access publishing will eat into research funding and fail to drive down the article fees charged by top journals, a research head has claimed.
The warning from David Price, vice-provost for research at University College London, follows the government's acceptance earlier this week of the recommendations of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Dame Janet Finch.
The government-convened group recommended last month that gold open access - under which authors pay to make their papers open access - should be mandated for all taxpayer-funded research in the UK.
Research Councils UK's new open-access policy, published in its final version earlier this week, stipulates that all research even partly funded by research councils must be made open access from April 2013.
The research councils will provide research organisations with block grants to cover article charges. If the journal of publication does not offer a gold open-access option, papers should be made available in open-access repositories within six months or 12 months for papers in humanities and social science.
According to Professor Price, this form of open access, known as "green", would cost the sector much less than the extra £50 million to £60 million a year in transition costs estimated by the Finch group.
However, Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, has argued in a letter to David Willetts, the minister for universities and science, that green embargoes of less than 12 months will "significantly damage" learned societies, which rely on income from their subscription journals.
Of particular concern to Professor Price was the cost, under gold open access, of publishing in top journals because "it is not immediately obvious, under the new RCUK policy, that any mechanisms or market pressure will be brought to bear" on the article fees they charge.
He added that extra transition costs would be paid from within the existing research budget, "effectively reducing the funding available for the UK's leading research".
Supporting that view was Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, of which UCL is a member. "Spending...£60 million on gold open access is the equivalent of more than 1,000 PhD studentships," she said.
Sir Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics, said he hoped that it might "still be possible for government to find alternative means of covering these costs".
The UK funding councils have meanwhile announced they will consult on a requirement that all research submitted to research excellence frameworks beyond 2014 be "as widely accessible as may be reasonably achievable at the time".
Paul Hubbard, head of research policy at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, told an event hosted last week by the Society for Research into Higher Education that, in his view, academics should use journals only to record claims of ownership of significant findings.
The desire to spark "conversations" - which motivated many publications - was best realised in online forums, he said. "I would encourage you to ask whether going through the complexity and delay of writing an article, having it peer-reviewed and possibly paying the journal to publish it is worth it."