Librarians and publishers have both signed up to a report that endorses an open-access model as the best approach for increasing access to research papers.
The report, Heading for the Open Road: Costs and Benefits of Transitions in Scholarly Communications, assesses the cost-benefit ratio of a number of different models for promoting greater access. It concludes that the most prudent stance for UK policymakers would be to promote gold open access, in which authors pay fees to make their papers freely available to all.
It says that as well as offering publishers a viable business model, gold open access is the only approach that offers potential savings to UK higher education - provided that article charges are kept below £2,000. The current global average fee is £2,634.
But Michael Jubb, director of the Research Information Network and a member of the steering committee overseeing the report, said that if gold open access took off, it had the potential to develop a market in fees. This was because the costs of the academic publishing system would be borne by researchers rather than librarians, unlike the current journal subscription model.
The report also endorses green open access, in which authors self-archive their papers after set embargo periods.
But it warns policymakers not to push for too short a period, which could encourage libraries to cancel journal subscriptions, undermining the publication system on which green open access relies.
The report rejects a number of alternative proposals for wider access put forward by publishers. These include offering UK-wide access licences for subscription journals, which it deems too expensive for universities, and "pay-per-view" models, which are considered unlikely to lead to substantial increases in access.
Dr Jubb said this was significant because the report's commissioners and supporters included a number of publishers' associations, as well as research library groups. Publishers have often been seen by librarians as inveterate opponents of open access.
Dr Jubb denied that the report had attempted to steer a middle course between the two groups.
"We are just trying to look at where the evidence takes us," he said. "We aren't holding a candle for publishers, but we are holding a candle for a sustainable transition, one that doesn't destroy what is valuable in what we already have."
He said that "hybrid" journals, which remain subscription-only except where authors pay fees to make their articles open access, were an important part of the transition to full open access. But he admitted that librarians would remain suspicious about "double-dipping", where publishers fail to cut subscription charges in proportion to increased income from article fees.
"There will need to be a careful watch kept on overall levels of expenditure to make sure they don't rise," he said.
Dr Jubb added that copies of the report had been requested by the Hargreaves review of intellectual property and by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, who recently hosted a round-table meeting on increasing access to research.