You’ve probably never given much thought about how science journals operate. The basics is a scientist submits a manuscript for publication to an appropriate journal, that journal has volunteer scientists judge the soundness of the study (peer-review), the manuscript is sent back for editing, and hopefully is successfully submitted for publication. The usual time period for this is about four months but is very dependent on the field. There are a few things to point out here. These journals did not pay for the research or the people who conducted the research. They also don’t pay for peer-reviewers. Tax payers almost exclusively pay for all of these costs i.e. the researchers, funding for the studies, peer-reviewers, etc. So it must be rather cheap to publish, yes?
Unfortunately, the costs are astronomical for universities. For example, UC was paying Elsevier $11 million per year to publish open access work. Meaning, the article is free for everyone to read as long as scientists and institutions pay a large upfront cost. Most articles are behind a pay wall, costing about $30 to buy it. I personally have access to articles like the one linked. Strangely, if you are not affiliated with a university, you cannot directly access these articles, which you funded as a tax payer. You do have access to them if you visit a university library but this is a large barrier to overcome for many Americans.
You might be wondering, well maybe it’s a very expensive to publish, even after cutting the costs of funding all of the substance of the manuscripts. Let’s put this in perspective: Elsevier has a profit margin of 36%, higher than Apple. To put that margin more in perspective, the New York Time’s (NYT) profit margin is 11% for this past year, over 1⁄3 lower. If NYT can operate at their scale while producing all of their own content and still be profitable without costing taxpayers billions of dollars, surely Elsevier can too. Elsevier is not alone in these absurdly high profit margins but they are the target of the outrage. To me, this strongly shows Americans are fronting the bill so science publication companies can profit off hard working Americans.
For further reading, a great article on the history of the hijacking of science publications, further corrupting one of the purest things in the world scientists strive for - the advancement of human knowledge for the selfless benefit of human kind.