When the top university in the world starts to complain about something, you have to take it seriously. Harvard has started to complain about the high cost of the subscriptions of scientific journals. They say their library cannot afford these anymore. I did not know that the major scientific publications could cost libraries thousands of pounds. Even if some journals come out monthly, it is still a very high price for an issue. Since most of the work is done by the academics and peer reviewers, the publishing houses probably get their money with less of an effort than is the case with the other types of publishing. When any books are published the publishers have to review and edit them, but this is not true with the established journals.
I am myself an editor-in-chief for an open access peer reviewed online publication, the Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland. Since there is no subscription revenue and the Archaeological Society of Finland is not a rich society, this post is honorary and the society pays only any small fees for extra web storage space. However, the peer review guarantees the standard and the open web access guarantees the widest potential audience worldwide. Naturally, not all web users are interested in archaeology or northern areas, but the potential is there. Any reader can access the scientific articles published, in the case of the first volume a selection of highly interesting articles about Mesolithic lithic technologies in the northern Europe.
The free nature of the enterprise means that the workload has to be passed lower down the food chain. This means that the authors have to prepare their manuscripts digitally as far as they can, optimize and set the figures and create print/photoready files. With the modern word processing technology this is not a problem but requires the people preparing the volume to define the look and the settings of their publication at an early stage. If the authors are going to do the work, they have to know the page settings and the styles. This leaves the editors (if not the author of the monograph) with collating the files and checking that they have been created in a correct manner. In the case of edited volumes the editors also have to prepare any material from the less computer skilled academics. The editor-in-chief makes sure that the peer review is organized correctly and in a reasonable time with the help of the editorial board.
This all means that there is a lot of free work done at every level – or work that is covered by grants or salaries from the main job of the editors and authors. Nevertheless, the free access allows everybody, also those without a university affiliation to read high quality research and get up-to-date correct information. Free access means that the research potentially can reach the largest audience possible. Essential in the current academic landscape!