The UK should lead the way in transforming scientific publishing from a "reader pays" model to an "author pays" model. That is the main conclusion of a 140-page report released today by an independent working group of academics, publishers, librarians and representatives from learned societies. Led by the British sociologist Janet Finch, the 15-strong working group includes Steven Hall, managing director of IOP Publishing, which publishes physicsworld.com.

Commissioned by the UK government, the report notes that the Internet has had a profound impact on how scientists access peer-reviewed research papers, with nearly all articles now being available online. However, many journals are subscription based, which means that they can only be accessed by researchers working at institutions that have taken out a subscription or those who are willing to pay a one-off fee to access individual articles on a pay-per-view basis.

Some researchers therefore feel that subscription-based journals are preventing the results of government-funded research from being more widely disseminated, arguing that it should be freely accessible in the public domain – a view that the report describes as both "compelling" and "fundamentally unanswerable". Proponents of this "open access" model say it would not only benefit researchers in smaller universities and poorer nations that cannot afford subscriptions, but also help inventors and small businesses by giving non-academics access to scientific and technical knowledge.

The challenge in making the transition to full open-access publishing will be to decide who should pay the not insubstantial cost of running peer-review systems, publishing the papers and maintaining and upgrading the complex online systems that underpin most modern journals. The Finch group has come down firmly in support of the "author pays" model, whereby scientists pay an article processing charge (APC) before a paper is published. This model is already used in part by a number of scientific publishers, including IOP Publishing, which has run New Journal of Physics in this way since it was launched in 1998 with the German Physical Society.

The report calls on UK research councils – which provide the bulk of public research funding – to "establish more effective and flexible arrangements to meet the cost of publishing in open-access and hybrid journals". Based on an APC of about £1750, the group believes that a move to open access would cost the UK an additional £38m per year. The report also says that the UK government must spend an extra £10m per year to extend its current licences on reader-pays journals to provide wider access to this material in the higher-education and health sectors, with publishers also providing "walk in" access at public libraries at no charge.

A further £3–5m per year, the report argues, would need to be spent on open repositories of scientific reports that have not been subject to peer review. Such repositories, it suggests, could contain work done at a university or institute – or done UK-wide in a specific discipline. The report also cites a one-off transition cost of £5m, putting the total cost of the transition to full open access at about £50–60m per year. This, it says, is "modest" compared with the £10.4bn that the government spends every year on research and development in the UK.

One challenge facing the UK if it leads the move to open access is how to apportion APCs when research is published by an international collaboration that includes one or more UK-based scientists. According to the report, about 46% of papers met this criterion in 2010 and a clear policy would have to be put in place to decide who pays for what – and what to do if foreign funding agencies refuse to pay their share.

Response and reaction

David Willetts, the UK's minister for universities and science, has welcomed the report, saying that it will shape the government's forthcoming policy on open-access journals. "Opening up access to publicly funded research findings is a key commitment for this government," he says. "Proposed initiatives such as providing access to findings for small companies and making peer-reviewed journals available free of charge at public libraries would foster innovation, drive growth and open up a new area of academic discovery."

The response from the publishing industry has generally been positive. David Hoole, marketing director of Nature Publishing Group that publishes the Nature suite of journals, says that the company "welcomes the balanced approach of the Finch report, and its recognition of the need for a mixed economy, of licensing subscription content, self-archiving and open-access publication". However, Hoole warns that the small number of papers published in highly selective journals such as Nature will require APCs higher than those acknowledged in the report.

Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge who is involved in a boycott of the commercial publisher Elsevier, told physicsworld.com that while he welcomes the general direction suggested by the report, he does not think it sufficiently acknowledges the "very large" profits that he says publishers make. "The report recommends moving to a more open system, which I strongly support," says Gowers. "But I would have liked to have seen a bolder report that also recommended taking steps to move to a cheaper system that covers the costs of publishers but significantly reduces their profits."

Any move to open access will also affect UK-based learned societies such as the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry, all of which publish journals on a not-for-profit basis. "The report clearly recognizes the challenge that the transition poses to learned societies," says Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics. "With more than two-thirds of the Institute's charitable projects funded by the gift-aided profits from our publishing company, IOP Publishing, it's crucial to us that the shift is managed carefully."