Most of us paleontologists have a handful of journals to which we personally subscribe, usually associated with society memberships. In other cases, we rely upon our institution's library, other local libraries, or the goodwill of colleagues to get access. In these days of tight budgets, many libraries are eyeing journal cuts. But, one might say, "I only pay $100 a year in membership dues--surely the institutions can't be that strapped for cash!" The key thing, though, is that institutional and individual subscriptions are entirely different animals.
To some extent, it is easy to legitimize a higher cost for an institutional subscription. An inexpensive journal is a perk of society membership, for instance--and this low cost is subsidized in part by library subscription fees. Additionally, the journal publishers might have a much slimmer amount of income per printed page for institutional subscriptions (because many, many people would be utilizing the same copy). So, to keep things running smoothly, it's necessary to charge a little more to an institution.
Unfortunately, the problem results when subscription rates increase at a rate exceeding institutional budgets. The fact of the matter is that some journals are just ridiculously expensive for a library to purchase! Just how ridiculously expensive, you might ask? Let's consider the case of the journal Palaeoworld. In 2008, the journal had a total of 264 published pages, and an annual institutional subscription cost of $532. This comes to a cost per printed page of $2.02--no wonder most institutions can't afford it!
You are probably thinking to yourself that I've chosen a ridiculous example--and to some extent I have. Palaeoworld is a relatively small journal targeting a limited audience. Let's look at a "better known" journal--Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. They regularly publish high-impact, groundbreaking research--to the tune of $1.02 per page. The venerable Cretaceous Research costs $1.09 per page!
Then, there are the cases that are so egregiously expensive that it simply boggles the mind. Consider Journal of Morphology. It's not strictly a paleontology journal, but it frequently publishes paleontology-related content--and its reputation is pretty solid. In fact, I've even published there. Yet, a yearly institutional subscription costs $6,031!!! That works out to a staggering $3.89 per page.
Are there any reasonably-priced journals for institutions? Fortunately, there are some, if you dig around a little. Kudos to the folks at Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, with a price per page of 22 cents. And let's hear it for Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, barely tipping the scales at 13 cents per page. As opposed to the examples above, these are society or labor-of-love journals published through relatively small publishing houses. Yet, even the for-profit journal Nature manages 42 cents per page for institutional subscriptions. In my mind, these are all perfectly reasonable costs.
Some savvy publishers have figured out a very slick way to seemingly lower the price--"bundling" packages of electronically-accessed journals together for a group discount. This is somewhat admirable in modestly reducing the overall price per page (for the short term), but it also means that you get stuck with supporting journals of very, very dubious scientific quality. See this news release from Cornell about why it's not a good economic idea in the long-run, too (and a quick internet search will turn up many other examples).
I think that the concept of commercial journal publication is not inherently bad--there are a number of good-quality journals run by such companies. It's just that they're so blatantly overcharging for access to this content! A journal clocking in at $2/page is not sustainable in the long-run. Although I have a strong preference for open access (which someone has to pay for somewhere along the line), I also recognize that some very good closed-access journals provide a valuable service (and see delayed open access as a viable compromise).
So, I challenge you publishing readers (and myself) to weigh all of the factors before submitting that next research paper. What is the impact factor? How respected is the journal? And, will people be able to afford to read it? Let's publish responsibly.
Methodological Notes--I grabbed the most recent available annual, instutional subscription prices from publishers' websites, with rates for US institutions in US dollars whenever possible. I then counted up the total number of pages published in 2008, and divided this by the subscription rate to come up with a value for dollars/page.