For many years, the system worked pretty well. Journal publishers, which were often non-profit scholarly societies, charged reasonable prices for their journals, and libraries could afford to buy them without crowding out purchases of books or other library materials. Ferdinand von Prondzynski, who is now Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, identifies this as "a key problem of academic life":
Lecturers must publish, and not just anywhere. The journals that are accepted as good places in which to be seen know this very well, and they abuse the market. They are far too expensive, and as a result really only libraries can afford them. And as library budgets get cut everywhere, they too are now having to be choosy.
In fact, whether we are talking about books or journals, academic publishers present us with really major problems. There are not many of them, and they are not customer-focused. It is time to leave all that behind us. The academy should develop and manage online journals where academics can place their work and where this will be appropriately peer-reviewed. It is time to break away from a publishing sector that has some of the most restrictive practices of the modern business world. It is time to open up publishing opportunities for academics and to make it easy for others to access what has been published.
I'd add only one thing: Some journals are still published by non-profit, scholarly societies and still provide libraries with good value. Libraries should support such journals, while developing new methods of disseminating research that is too frequently hidden behind exorbitant price barriers.
1Publication of articles is much more common in the sciences and some other fields than it is in the humanities where "the book" is a much more important outlet for scholarly work.
2I'm focusing on journals and journal articles, because the problem I'm about to remind you of arises because of journal pricing practices.