Distinct from transparency of the peer review process itself, is that of the fact that most scientific journals are published by for-profit companies. For-profit journal publishers have a unique monopoly, because any scientific article is only ever published in one journal. Thus to support the intellectual activities of professors, students, and staff, university libraries have little choice to pay whatever subscription fee the journal chooses to charge. Presently, these subscription costs comprise the vast majority of most university library budgets. For example, in the 2018-19 academic year, Dalhousie University paid a total of over CAD$3.1 million for journal subscriptions; nearly half of this was to one publisher, Elsevier/Science Direct. The cost of journal access has been recognized as a problem for universities across Canada and around the world; for example the Canadian Association of Research Libraries has described these costs as “unsustainable”. While journals certainly incur costs associated with the publishing of scientific articles, that same report notes that for-profit publishers typically have profit margins of 30% or greater, meaning that roughly 1/3 of subscription costs go to making the owners and shareholders of those companies more wealthy, rather than disseminating knowledge.
Adding insult to injury, in many people’s view, is the fact that this for-profit publishing industry relies on the good will, and free labour, of scientists. As noted, peer reviewers are not paid for this duty, and neither are journal editors (editorial roles do carry some prestige, which provides some additional benefit and incentive). So at the end of the day, publishers rely on the free labour of scientists at universities, but then charge those same universities high fees to access the work that their employees reviewed and edited for free. Moreover, most of the published scientific work was only possible due to research grants that covered the costs of the work — and these grants are primarily provided by governments, using money collected from taxes. In other words, the general public pays for research through their taxes, but is not able to access the results of the research because it is behind a paywall that, at best, only academic “elite” can access.