Although I am generally very skeptical of any form of exceptionalism, political, cultural, academic, or otherwise, I do think that scholarly publishing is quite different from professional and general non-fiction publishing. The difference is the relationship between authors and readers. That relationship is far more of a two-way affair for scholarly literature than for any other form of publishing.
Broad and open dissemination of research results, knowledge, and insights has always been the hallmark of science. When the Elseviers/Elzevirs (no relation to the current company of the same name, which was started by Mr. Robbers [his last name; I can’t help it] a century and a half after the Elsevier family stopped their business), among the first true ‘publishers’, started to publish scholarship, for example the writings of Erasmus, they used the technology of the day to spread knowledge as widely as was then possible.
In those days, publishing meant ‘to make public’. And ‘openness’ was primarily to do with escaping censorship. (Some members of the Elsevier family went as far as to establish a pseudonymous imprint, Pierre Marteau, in order to secure freedom from censorship). But openness in a wider sense — freedom from censorship as well as broad availability — has, together with peer-review, been a constituent part of what is understood by the notions of scholarship and science since the Enlightenment. Indeed, science can be seen as a process of continuous and open review, criticism, and revision, by people who understand the subject matter: ‘peers’.
The practicalities of dissemination in print dictated that funds must be generated to defray the cost of publishing. And pre-publication peer review emerged as a way to limit waste of precious paper and its distribution cost by weeding out what wasn’t up to standards of scientific rigour and therefore not worth the expense needed to publish. The physical nature of books and journals, and of their transportation by stagecoach, train, ship, lorry, and the like, made it completely understandable and acceptable that scientific publications had to be paid for. Usually by means of subscriptions. However, scientific information never really was a physical good. It only looked like that, because of the necessary physicality of the information carriers. The essence of science publishing was the service of making public. You paid for the service, though it felt like paying for something tangible.
The new technology of the internet, specifically the development of web browsers (remember Mosaic?), changed the publishing environment fundamentally. The need for carriers that had to be physically transported all but disappeared from the equation. The irresistible possibility of unrestrained openness emerged. But something else happened as well. With the disappearance of physical carriers of information, software, etc. the perception of value changed. The psychology of paying for physical carriers, such as books, journals, CDs, DVDs is very different from the psychology of paying for intangibles, such as binary strings downloaded from the web, with no other carrier than wire, or optical cable, or even radio waves. In order to perceive value, the human expectation — need, even — for physical, tangible goods in exchange for payment is very strong, though not necessarily rational, especially where we have been used to receiving physical goods in exchange for money for a very long time. That is not to say that we wouldn’t be prepared to value and to pay for intangibles, like services. We do that all the time. But it has to be clear to us what exactly the value of a service is — something we often find more difficult, reportedly, than for physical goods.
This is a conundrum for science publishers. Carrying on with what they are used to, but then presented as a service and not ‘supported’ by physical goods any longer, can look very ‘thin’. Yet it is clear that the assistance publishers provide to the process of science communication is a service par excellence. Mainly to authors ('publish-or-perish') and less so to readers (‘read-or-rot’ isn’t a strong adage). Hence the author-side payment pioneered by open access publishers (Article Processing Charges, or APCs).
Although it would be desirable to make the transit to open access electronic publishing swiftly, the reality of inertia in the ‘system’ dictates that there be a transition period and method. This transition is sought in many different ways: new, born-OA journals that gradually attract more authors; hybrid journals that accept OA articles against author-side payment; ‘green’ mandates, that require authors to self-archive a copy of their published articles; unmediated, ‘informal’ publishing such as in arXiv; even publishing on blogs.
What may be an underestimated transition — and no-doubt a controversial one — is a model (a kind of ‘freemium’ model?) that’s gradually changing from restrictive to more and more open, extending the ‘free’, ‘open’ element and reducing the features that have to be paid for by the user. I even don’t think it is recognized as a potential transition model at the moment at all, but that may be missing opportunities. Let’s take a look at an example. If you don’t have a subscription you can’t see the full-text. However, where only a short time ago you saw only the title and the abstract, you now see those, plus keywords and the abbreviations used in the article, its outline in some detail, and all the figures with their captions (hint to authors: put as much of the essence of your paper in the captions). All useful information. It is not a great stretch to imagine that the references are added to what non-subscribers can see (indeed, some publishers already do that), and even the important single scientific assertions in an article, possibly in the form of ‘nanopublications’, on the way to eventual complete openness.
Of course, it is not the same as full, BOAI-compliant open access, but in areas where ‘ocular’ access is perhaps less important than the ability to use and recombine factual data found in the literature, it may provide important steps during what may otherwise be quite a protracted transition from toll-access to open access, from a model based on physical product analogies to one based on the provision of services that science needs.