George Monbiot writes in the Guardian with some sobering statistics about academic publishing: "Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist"
The publishers claim that they have to charge these fees as a result of the costs of production and distribution, and that they add value (in Springer's words) because they "develop journal brands and maintain and improve the digital infrastructure which has revolutionised scientific communication in the past 15 years". But an analysis by Deutsche Bank reaches different conclusions. "We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process … if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn't be available." Far from assisting the dissemination of research, the big publishers impede it, as their long turnaround times can delay the release of findings by a year or more.
All of this money has gone into creating a publishing system that isn't even usable or accessible to the volunteer laborers that create the content. People who have good journal access at research universities (and I'm fortunate to be one of these) still have to burn minutes every time we access an article to go through the ridiculous paywalls. Then there's the crazy rigmarole of linking online discussion to these paywall-ridden papers.
Could somebody please let Amazon take charge of this? They have a system that maintains content at varying levels of pay/free, recognizes its users across multiple devices, and presents text material in an easy-to-read format. Every research author can publish to the e-book format as easily as an export from a word processor. Let's suppose that editors charged for the service of managing peer review, at levels that vary with the prestige that they have earned. Some editors would charge a fee that enabled them to pay reviewers, some would be paid or subsidized by universities. Then authors could choose to pay for a prestigious editor, and recoup that cost by grants or charging per-access, again, possibly subsidized by libraries.
The solution to the collective action problem isn't complaining about the journals, it's providing a solution that works better.
UPDATE (2011-08-29): Noah Gray comments on Monbiot's article, sharing his perspective from inside Nature Publishing Group (but not speaking for the company). I thought he made a useful contribution, and contributed my own comment, including:
Most of the participants in this process are uncompensated, or are at best compensated only indirectly. The indirect compensation at present is tightly linked to prestige: publishing, editing and reviewing for the right journals. Secrecy and control have been routes to reinforce prestige, as are the traditional methods of advertising, sponsorship and signing "big names" by giving preferred treatment. These methods are design flaws from the perspective of promoting good science, as they exclude by institution, by nationality, and by arbitrary tastes.