I’m also an academic, specifically in creative writing. I think this is a case where the broader literary community doesn’t understand how the IF community functions.
The Florida Review is a very competitive literary journal that accepts 1% or less of submissions. That is to say, were I to get a poem or short story accepted there, I would be quite pleased. The way creative writers work with lit mags is that they send off some poems or a story to a journal, wait a while, most likely get told “no, we won’t publish this,” and then try again.
I think the mores for IF are very different. There’s no gatekeeper for publishing per se. If you want to publish a game, you can do it on your own website, host it on IFDB, etc. Many IF games are free to play and commercial ones are clearly labeled as such. Comps are one of the few places I can think of that really publish an anthology of games as an “edition.” There are virtually no lit mags that do so.
With the exception of very few, lit mags don’t make money. They simply don’t. Very few people buy or read them. But they exist because there is a glut of people who write poems and stories and would like to get them published. So the supply of writing far outweighs the number of people who want to read it. Some have some form of external funding (often from a university) that allows them to continue in the face of economic impossibility. Other lit mags are published by people who simply love doing it and are willing to commit some of their own funds every year toward it–something like a hobby, though people would choose a different word because “hobby” doesn’t sound serious enough.
The Florida Review, specifically, uses Submittable as its submission service. It’s a nice system–many lit mags use it, and from a user’s perspective, it keeps track of where your submissions are in the process. But the system costs lit mags money. (It’s free for submitters.) The claim that I’ve seen from some lit mags is that the $2 fee (and more commonly, I’ve seen $3) covers this cost and is the same amount you would pay in the old days when you mailed out your work to a lit mag along with an SASE to get back a response. I’m not terribly sympathetic to that argument.
Most lit mags don’t pay cash. They would like to, but they don’t have the money. You either get your work on their website or, in the case of a physical publication, one or two copies of the journal in which your work appears.
All of that being said, I never pay to submit my work to a lit mag for reasons other people have given. I refuse to pay to (most likely) be rejected. In theory, selecting good work should sell more copies and therefore make the journal more money, but the reality is it doesn’t. Charging potential contributors shifts the fundamental purpose of a lit mag, in my opinion, and while I understand the economics, it simply feels unethical.
So, ultimately, it’s not a scam. But it is a part of the changing literary landscape. I’m not sure what percentage of journals charge reading fees–I’d estimate maybe 15%–but I can pretty much guarantee that number will only go up as time goes on. And I’ll personally keep sending my work to places that don’t charge.