Important reforms of academic publishing, such as achieving open access, reforming and opening peer review, and drastically reducing costs, are desirable and feasible. Such reforms will not come from traditional academic publishers, which enjoy de facto monopolies and make huge profits in the existing system.
Reforms have to come from academics and academic institutions. In a series of posts, I will review some of the actions which are being undertaken by individuals and institutions. The first post is about boycotts.
Boycotting the worst established publishers is the most straightforward way for academics to act: it directly addresses the main obstacles to reform, and it can be done by individuals. The most prominent example is the boycott of the publisher Elsevier. While this boycott is no existential threat to Elsevier, it is prominent enough to be noticeable by financial analysts.
Academics can boycott journals as authors, reviewers and editors.
Boycotting a journal as an author can be dangerous for one's career, as there are usually very few journals with a given level of prestige in a given scientific field. Moreover, authors often have coauthors, and dragging them into a boycott can be difficult, and even irresponsible when some of them are junior scientists.
Boycotting a journal as a reviewer is a priori easier, as an anonymous reviewer's work is only known to the editor, and has little or no impact on the reviewer's career. However, most reviewers consider their work as an altruistic act benefitting the community, and will not easily be conviced that working for certain journals is detrimental to the community, by perpetuating obsolete and overly expensive models of publishing. There is little a journal could do if faced with a widespread reviewers' boycott. Paying reviewers might help, but the sums would have to be small. (Assuming profits of 1000 euros per article, out of which 20% are diverted to paying reviewers, an acceptance rate of 50%, and two reviewers per article, we obtain 50 euros per reviewer.)
A journal cannot survive without good editors, and the prestige of the editors as researchers is decisive for the standing of the journal. Editors will not easily decide to resign: they have often given much effort to the journal, and want to continue the good work. Moreover, editors are typically paid. Nevertheless, it has sometimes happened that a whole editorial board resigns, in order to recreate a similar journal independently from the original publisher.
None of these three types of boycott is very widespread. This is not surprising: on the one hand, journals are established participants of the research enterprise, and academics mostly communicate with journals via other academics -- the editors. On the other hand, the publishers' mischief is not directly visible to academics, as journal subscriptions with their abusive prices are negotiated way above their heads. Journals show their nice faces to the academics, and their ugly faces to the hapless librarians. Then academics fail to understand why they should boycott, and librarians fail to understand why academics are reluctant to boycott.