An annual subscription to Tetrahedron, a chemistry journal, will cost your university library $20,269; a year of the Journal of Mathematical Sciences will set you back $20,100. In 2011 Elsevier, the biggest academic-journal publisher, made a profit of £768m ($1.2 billion) on revenues of £2.1 billion. Such margins (37%, up from 36% in 2010) are possible because the journals’ content is largely provided free by researchers, and the academics who peer-review their papers are usually unpaid volunteers. The journals are then sold to the very universities that provide the free content and labour. For publicly funded research, the result is that the academics and taxpayers who were responsible for its creation have to pay to read it. This is not merely absurd and unjust; it also hampers education and research.
The Economist’s suggestion? Government grants which fund academic research should require results be made freely available.
In Australia this is beginning to become the case, but the way it is being done at the moment is to require providing pre-prints via university repositories rather than encouraging publication in open access journals.