This week is Open Access Week, a week to broaden awareness and understanding of open access to research. The idea is that as much of research is being funded by public money, it should be made available freely to everyone. With the advent of the Internet as a very inexpensive publication medium, it thus becomes possible to disseminate new research at near zero cost.
However, commercial publishers are to lose an important profit center if they were to grant free access to all their publications. They have been resisting any opening of their archive to non-subscribers. Some are experimenting with models where authors pay a flat fee for their article to be available in open access. The fees, however, are exorbitant and discourage authors. They do not need be so high.
The answer of some funding agencies, some academics and many librarians has been to push for open access mandates. A particularly prominent example is the NIH mandate. The idea is to mandate authors to deposit in institutional repositories whatever they publish. In most sciences, this is the only way to provide open access independently from publishers. In Economics and Physics, for example, there are decade-old initiatives collecting and disseminating pre- and post-prints.
Nevertheless, there are also a good number of open access journals, which face an uphill battle in getting a reputation similar to existing commercial ones, simply because OA journals are typically young. One of the goals of the Open Access week is to increase awareness about such publishing options, trigger interest in more open access mandates, and thus break the vicious cycle wherein researchers have to pay to access their own research. Talk to your colleagues about it.