A British government panel has issued a report urging that all publicly-funded research should be published on open-access journals. About time, I say; it is simply maddening that research paid for by taxpayers should end up locked away in journals that charge $10,000 a year for a subscription, and $35 to view a single article. This will cost some money, since the new, open-access journals charge contributors instead of subscribers. The report estimates the government would have to pay $80 million a year in publication fees. On the other hand, Britain's universities (all publicly owned) are currently paying $175 million for journal subscriptions, so a complete switch to the open-access model would save the taxpayers a bundle while it gave them greater access to work that they funded in the first place.
Academic journals arose as a way to spread information, and the requirement that scientists "publish" their work meant "make it available to the public." A century ago, journals were the best way to spread information. Now that we have the internet, this is no longer true, and journals now do more to prevent the spread of knowledge than to promote it. They survive because the careers of scientists and other academics are tied to their publication output. I sincerely doubt that the universities will change this system on their own. Change can only come from the governments and foundations that now fund most academic work. They should all start insisting that any research funded by the public be published where the public can have access to it for free.
I personally think the new "pay to play" journals are a sort of half-way measure. Why have formal journals at all, with their staffs and systems of peer review? I say we should just set up web sites where anyone can post research, and rely on the scientific community to call attention to the best work.