People want to know things (biased or unbiased). This quest over time led to the development of what we call: science, the systematic enterprise that build and organizes knowledge (according to wikipedia).
The 19th century 'scientist' was a man with enough wealth (or his family's wealth or to paid by a very wealthy individual) to support their hobbies. This process, facilitated by discussion of Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Williamn Whewell, and Richard Jones (as described in The Philosophical Breakfast Club by Laura Snyder), was transformed into a profession with career paths and guidelines of sorts. Now anyone could go to university and be trained to become a scientist. If you that: Welcome to the academic rat race.
For your work to be acknowledged and appreciated by your peers, you have to publish your work. Where do you publish? If you are in the field of biological sciences, you want to publish in journals with high impact factors (as calculated by Thomson Reuters Corporation), such as Science, Nature or Cell.
So how does this process work?
It all boils down to who is paying at the end of the day (hint: are you paying taxes?):
1. you do your experiments and write a manuscript of your results
2. you submit your manuscript to a journal
3. your peers review this manuscript as quality control for free (after the editors of the journal deemed the research presented in the manuscript innovative enough)
4. if accepted, you pay a fee to publish
5. for your peers to read your work, their universities need to have a subscription to that specific journal.
In steps 1, 3, and 5 the funding that supports your research is paying for this and in most cases researchers are funded with state or federal funds. Thus, the taxpayers are indirectly paying for this. In addition to cashing in on federal funding, publishing companies will also demand full copyright on all work published under their banner. In other words, they claim legal ownership of this work, of this knowledge. All of that without having done a single experiments. Without having analysed any data. Without having thought how this data fits in the current body of knowledge. Without having written any article describing primary research. And as a courtesy to everyone, they demand that everyone pays them to read the body of work they have not intellectually contributed to in any form. Intellectual and experimental contribution are a pre-requisite to be a co-author on a particular paper. Yet, the authors give up the legal ownership of their own work, yet pride themselves for doing so and showcase this where ever they go to give a talk (their own work that is). This means that the libraries of universities and research institutes pay these publishers large sums of money (up to 65%) to have access to the articles that in part have been produced by the very same researchers who are affiliated to these universities and research institutions. The circle has been completed. The operating profit margin publishers make (36% in case of Elsevier) is nearly completely funded by the taxpayers.
What are the consequences of this system?
From a resource perspective, only the wealthiest universities can afford to pay for most of the available journal prescriptions. This means that there is a knowledge resource gap between the wealthiest universities versus a relatively poor college. For a researcher at a 'poor' college it will be much harder to stay up to date with his/her field compared to his/her peers at one of the wealthier universities/institutions.
This means that the wealthiest universities have the capacity to do great review work of the currently available knowledge on any given subject, yet this rarely happens. This can be contributed to the peer pressure to publish novel research in top tier journals. With these publications in top tier journals the researcher has a greater chance of getting funding, as well as maintaining on the path to become a tenured professor (the holy grail of the academic researcher). Even in a more junior position, like if you want to get a good post-doc position, publications in a top tier journal greatly helps your cause. So, to be a competitive researcher you are forced through peer pressure and institutionalized bureaucratic guidelines to publish in journals that are run by publishers that greatly (albeit indirectly) profit from federal tax-money.
What about a researcher in a developing country?
In developing countries this problem is even bigger. First off, there is less money to do research. Second, getting supplies to do expensive experiments are hard to get and nearly always come with long delivery times. Third, it is hard for these researchers to keep up with literature because of above mentioned reasons, but also because of visa issues to attend meetings in the Western world. The WHO, in part, tried to accommodate this by creating HINARI, a program that gives access to ~8000 journals to researchers in developing countries (but only a select group of developing countries).
Make all published work openly accessible to anyone who would like to read it, no matter where this person lives, no matter the income or affiliation this person has, no matter the eduction this person has received. Everyone will be able to read the finding and claims of scientists without having to pay exorbitant amounts of money to companies who are currently claiming copyright ownership on knowledge being produced by people who are, by enlarge, being paid with federal or state money.
OpenAccess and Creative Commons. The success of this movement is obvious, as the established publishers are now creating their own version of an OpenAccess journal. Even the three largest private funding agencies (Max Planck Institute, Welcome-Trust, and HHMI) are working together to create an OpenAccess journal. That is type of publishing is necessary has not been misunderstood by the developing countries, as Brazil has launched SciELO in 1997 (PLoS was founded in 2001). Slowly but steadily science is becoming an open endeavour for everyone to follow and thus creating public accountability for work done with public money.