Obviously this is a question in the light of the recent Elsevier boycott. Currently we do have an arXiv, maintained by academia and where researchers regularly upload parts of their work. In such a case,
- Why do universities spend lots of money to publish in third-party journals?
The question especially applies to journals that operate with a rigorous profit motive. The subscription is very high, so wouldn't publishing in such journals affect the paper's citation count and deter the spread of knowledge about the work within academic circles?
- Why should not universities collaborate to create free, open access, peer-reviewed journals?
Moreover, given the need to conserve paper, why should journals spend on printing research papers? Wouldn't an online version suffice, as most people use only local computer printouts anyway? In other words, why can't we have a Wikipedia-like system of sharing research knowledge, having properly established standards for such journals?
This is a very big, multi-faceted question. A hidden undertone is whether academic publishers make too much money, which is not something I want to discuss in this answer. Some thoughts on the rest of the question:
Do we need journals? If arXiv is so good, do we need journals at all? Can we do away with journals and just have everyone upload their papers onto arXiv? If you believe we don't need journals entirely then we can also do away with most of the publication costs.
arXiv does have operational costs, so presumably there'd still be a small (say ~$10) charge per uploaded paper, which is a far cry from typical OA costs. On the other hand this would be the end of peer review (at least organized peer review), it would make science communication more difficult, and authors from developing countries could really struggle. Whether or not this is worth it regardless is up to your perspective. This is the most drastic option; for everything below I assume "yes we do need journals".
Assuming we need journals, costs are to be expected. Who pays for these then? Realistically there're only a few options:
- Authors. This is open access. OA has the fundamental problem of conflict of interest. Since only accepted papers generate revenue for the publisher, the publisher (and by extension the editorial board) is incentivized to accept papers. The COI can potentially be sidestepped by charging a (substantial) submission fee. Is the academic community willing to accept this, knowing there is a nontrivial chance of rejection? I don't know the answer to this; your guess is as good as mine.
- Readers, i.e. pay-per-view, if you want to view the paper then you pay for it. This is likely doable but an administrative hassle. It's much easier to log in to your university's library and then access every paper, rather than work through payment every time you want to read something. (Also usage statistics for most papers are very low indeed.)
- Universities. This is the current arrangement for subscription journals. A potential cost is that the university also pays for papers that its academics don't read (however you can be sure your library tracks usage statistics, which it uses to decide which journals to subscribe to).
- Advertisers. Does not work in practice since demand for advertising in academic journals is too low to sustain the journal.
- The general public. This is how things work for non-academic books: the author writes, gets paid a royalty, and the general public pays for the books. The problem with this is that academic papers are pretty bloody impossible to sell to the general public. They're so dense that undergraduates can't understand them, let alone the general public.
- Funding agencies. "Someone" pays the publisher, which then operates the journal with free submission and free access. This is the diamond open access model. The problem is who that "someone" should be. If it's a university, then we're effectively back at option #3, worded differently. If it's an academic society, then the question shifts to where they are getting the money from, and likely means they have less money to do other activities like outreach. If it's the government, then unless they put more money into academia, they'll have to move money away from somewhere else, most likely research funding. Is the community willing to take a collective funding cut so there's money to use for this? Again, your guess is as good as mine.
Ultimately, if you can think of a stronger business model, you can put it into practice and it'll probably supplant the former one. The fact that the status quo has largely remained is, I would say, an indication the current business model is the most reliable, however flawed it might be.