Major journals could move to an open-access model if they charged a fee for every paper submitted to them, a study has suggested.
Most open-access journals are currently funded solely via charges to the authors of papers accepted for publication.
However, high-profile journals such as Science and Nature do not offer open-access options on the grounds that their high rejection rates would force them to impose prohibitively high charges in order to cover the cost of administering peer review.
But a new report commissioned by Knowledge Exchange, the European association of organisations committed to open access, says that a better business model for journals that reject more than 70 per cent of submitted articles would be to combine charges for accepted papers - known as article-processing charges - with submission fees.
The study, Submission Fees: A Tool in the Transition to Open Access?, says that for such journals, the combined cost of processing charges plus submission fees would allow the charges to be set at a substantially lower level, while also allowing publishers to increase and diversify their revenue.
Submission fees "would most likely limit author acceptance" if they were not offset by processing charges, it says.
The report concedes that while there is interest among publishers in introducing submission fees, they are concerned about higher administration costs and lower submission rates to journals.
Their reluctance is exacerbated by a perception that the benefits of submission charges, such as encouraging authors to submit only high-quality papers, largely accrue to the system as a whole rather than to publishers or authors.
Graham Taylor, director of educational, academic and professional publishing at the Publishers Association, said fees were "not the answer".
"To put up barriers to submission is bound to result in negative perceptions and competitive disadvantage unless the whole sector moves together," he added.
A spokeswoman for Nature echoed the concerns, but said it was "listening to the community on this one and will continue to keep the issue under review".
The report suggests that further research should be conducted on authors' willingness to pay submission charges, while funders and institutions should make clear their willingness to cover such fees.
Robert Kiley, head of digital services at the Wellcome Trust, said that the charity - an advocate of open access - would cover submission charges and had been calling for their combination with processing charges for several years.
The study notes that existing open-access publishers have not bought into the model.
A spokesman for the publisher BioMed Central told THE that it had "not found it necessary to look at submission fees", even for journals with high rejection rates.
"For those we often offer to consider rejected authors for publication in another journal with a lower rejection rate," he said.