First, that rational argument skips over the practicalities, or more specifically, the privilege underlying citations. If you or your advisors have a good scholarly network, you will have a significantly better to get your work cited. It is the Matthew Effect in its most basic form. It used to be – and actually largely still is – that if you are a man, you are much more likely to be recognized. In fact, you might even get recognition if others (i.e. non-men) did the work. In addition, if you start out your career at the right institute with the right advisor, you will have it far easier to get your work known and thus cited. (I definitely profited from my advisors excellent connections). If you do not have that privilege, you will have a hard time to get cited and your impact will be perceived to be low.
The second problem is that Journal Impact Factors are used as a shorthand for research quality. The impact factor is based on the number of times each article in that journal is on average cited within the first few years after publication. Now it should be obvious that the average number of citations says next to nothing about the quality of individual papers. The data is often massively skewed with a few papers getting most of the citations. If I publish in a journal with an impact factor of 5, that does not mean my work will or will not be of higher quality or will be cited more frequently than were I to have it published in a journal with an impact factor of 1. Impact factors are slowly losing their status in academia, but definitely not slowly enough.
So in that sense the main problem is greedy publishers. The transition to open access means they are only paid once for each piece of work. The costs are not actually that high, which is why some more ethical journals only charge a few hundred pounds/dollars/euros. Others, however, are happy to charge thousands for the simple business of editing a paper. We are basically paying for the prestige of getting work into a journal with a certain impact factor, and the publishers know this.
You would think it would be in the publishers’ interests to increase their exposure. And it is: the more papers in their journals are cited, the bigger their impact factor, the more people will want to publish with them, and the bigger their profits. So if anyone should be making an effort to get work noticed, it would be the publishers themselves. Like when you publish non-scholarly books, papers, or journals: the publishers makes an investment in order to sell more work. Academic publishers think differently. They just see another way to get money from researchers. And so now we get to pay for promotional tweets, advertisements on other publishers’ websites, or we can get our work “indexed” within 24 hours so it will be easier to find.
What this means for the future, I do not know. I recently paid a fee to a journal to speed up peer review. The journal in return pays the reviewers for their work. This seems positive, and in some ways I am very happy about the opportunity. I needed to get an article out there to use as a foundational study for further grant applications: it shows the feasibility of my work. But at 450 pounds, it is a steep fee and one that is beyond anyone who does not already have funding. So it exacerbates the Matthew Effect: once you are successful, you will have to money to easily further your career. If you are not from a privileged background or if you do not manage to break through, you will have a harder time of climbing the ladder.
The only solution I see is for academics to take back publishing. We need to make the costs as low as possible and financially prioritise the work of scholars with less financial means. Private publishing companies do not work in the interest of academia, but in the interest of their shareholders. I do not say they should not make money, but profits should flow back into academia through things like scholarships, fellowships, and grants. It is the only way to have a true meritocracy where we assess ideas and not the wallet of the people who present them.