The cost of making the transition to full open access could require universities to discourage or bar researchers from publishing minor papers in order to maintain funds for publication in top journals.
That is the conclusion of one of the members of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Dame Janet Finch, the former vice-chancellor of Keele University.
The group's long-awaited report, released earlier this week, estimated that the transition to open access would cost UK higher education an extra £50-£60 million a year.
The group of publishers, funders, librarians and figures from universities and learned societies - convened by David Willetts, the universities and science minister - concluded that a "clear policy direction" should be set favouring "gold" open access, in which authors pay upfront to make their papers publicly available.
It suggests that research funders make provision in grant awards for the payment of article charges.
Research Councils UK is widely expected to confirm, as part of its revised open-access mandate, that it will account for article charges as part of direct research costs, and the report suggests that universities use such money, plus "other available resources", to build up an internal fund to cover publication fees.
But Adam Tickell, pro vice-chancellor for research and knowledge transfer at the University of Birmingham and a Finch group member, noted that such funds would be "relatively restricted" and that demand for them would have to be "managed".
Observing that no one in his position would want to "restrict people's capacity to publish", he said there was no suggestion that researchers would be told to "publish in journal x rather than journal y".
Nor would there be much enthusiasm for manuscripts to be subjected to pre-submission peer review of the sort that research councils urge universities to conduct on grant applications so as to reduce submissions.
But he admitted that the funding issue would "take some negotiations and serious thinking", and that there might be a case for focusing on the "quality rather than quantity" of papers. "Quite a large number of people publish a huge volume of papers. If they were to reduce that, it may not make any significant difference to the integrity of the science base."
He added that academics themselves might be encouraged to ensure that papers they deemed to be of especial significance be published in open-access formats.
This would be particularly important if the UK funding councils confirm - as they are expected to do in the next few weeks - that all papers submitted to the next research excellence framework after the inaugural 2014 assessment will have to be open access.
The report says that universities and funders should "use their power as purchasers to bear down on the costs to them both of [article fees] and of subscriptions".
It envisages universities working with their researchers "in line with the principles of academic freedom" to make "judgements about the potential for publication in journals with different levels not only of status but of [article fees]".
But Dame Janet emphasised that the group had been careful to "make sure we don't damage the high standards of peer review or undermine the very successful publishing industry".
The group concludes that a transition to open access will happen gradually, with a mixture of subscription and open-access journals coexisting for a number of years.
It estimates that article charges are likely to rise before subscription charges drop, particularly if the UK's moves are not reciprocated quickly elsewhere. This could lead to a net increased cost to UK higher education of between £50 million and £60 million a year, nearly £40 million of which will go on article fees.
'Not green or efficient enough'
Stevan Harnad, an affiliate professor of electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton and a prominent advocate of the more radical "green" open-access model - in which authors self-archive papers in open-access repositories - condemned such "huge gratuitous additional costs at a time when the UK can ill afford them".
He said publishers had managed to give the Finch group the "very wrong impression" that gold open access was the only way to avoid "ruination and the end of research publishing and of peer review".
The report would undermine the "cost-free...repository-deposit mandates in which the UK's research funding councils and universities have been leading the world", he said.
But Professor Tickell said high-quality peer review had a cost. As an example of concessions by publishers, he cited recommendations in the report that restrictions on the reuse of papers should be minimised.
There was also the admission that it was legitimate for funders that pay article fees to impose green open-access embargoes of less than one year, he said. Publishers have argued that embargoes of six months, as proposed for science papers by the research councils, would trigger significant numbers of subscription cancellations.
"We didn't see it as a zero-sum game in the end," Professor Tickell said. "We ended up with a very much more consensual set of outcomes than any of us anticipated at the beginning."
Let's get it out there: the Finch report at a glance
• "Gold" open access, funded by article charges, should be seen as "the main vehicle for the publication of research"
• Public funders should establish "more effective and flexible arrangements" to pay article charges
• Restrictions on the rights of use and reuse of papers, especially for non-commercial purposes, should be minimised
• During the transition to open access, funding should be found to extend licences for non-open-access content to the whole UK higher education and health sectors
• Publishers' proposals on providing access to papers at public libraries should be "pursued with vigour"
• Journal pricing should be more transparent and, as the proportion of gold open access increases, the cost of subscriptions should come down
• Open-access embargoes should "avoid undue risk to valuable journals that are not funded in the main by [article fees]"
• The UK's role in international discussions about accelerating the move to open access should be "enhanced"
• Repositories should "play a valuable role complementary to formal publishing", including providing access to data and "grey" literature (works not published in mainstream channels)
• The range of open-access and hybrid journals should be extended
• Further experiments should be carried out in open-access publishing for scholarly monographs.