In short, the public pay for the vast majority of an academic's research, they pay further for almost 100% of their peer review, they even pay for the majority of the editing, and then the academics allow a private journal to take the copyright to the written product and restrict access on the output to those who pay. Libraries have to pay huge fees to gain access to journals.
If that cozy little siphon of public money into private profits wasn't enough to piss you off, did you know that in Australia the government uses yet more public money to financially reward universities whose academics publish in these journals? And did you know that an agency called Copyright Agency Limited takes a royalty fee on behalf of publishers for copies made by students? CAL returns a portion of that fee to, you guessed it - that same private publisher. Just one more dip in the public slush fund. Little wonder that one of these profiteering publishers, Reed Elseiver, reported an approximate profit of £247m in 2008.
Laurence Lessig tells of a situation where his new born baby was very ill, and the doctor appeared to be too busy to be up with the recent literature on the condition. Lessig attempted his own research into the condition, only to be frustrated by closed access journals! Imagine if the condition was critical!
I posted on this a while back, but George's post reveals a small network of others in the sector who are pretty pissed off about it, and who are doing the sums to show the negative return to the public for its investments. I've aggregated the links to good posts on this serious issue here.
I've aggregated posts and commentary on this scam, in the hope that we'll coordinate more and take action on it.