Considering the entire system of journals and papers is about reputation rather than profit (from what I understand, nobody in academia gets money from the publishing process), it’s a prime candidate for disruption. If a small group of universities started publishing all their papers on an official website (maybe with an opportune system of ranking, to somehow reflect quality of the reviewing process and make it really equivalent to traditional journal publishing), then the incentives to publish in an Elsevier paper would disappear. The system could then grow as more universities join.
I’m surprised nobody has done it yet, there must be some stumbling block I’m not aware of.
A record of publishing in prestigious journals (many of which are run by the major publishers) is generally good for tenure review and grant proposals. Starting a new publication is challenging because you have to attract the best quality work in order to gain prestige.
The current publishing model is a frequent topic of conversation among my colleagues. We share and discuss papers (formerly on Google Reader, now using substitutes like G+) from many sources. I would like to see http://arXiv.org acquire a public review process.
That's the main problem I see, really: buy-in from high-profile institutions. If a decent number of them started to publicize that they see papers published with New-Uber-Journal-System.XYZ as "preferred" over traditional papers, then people would queue up to publish there, and would force others to follow suit or be seen as "2nd rate". To do that though, NUJS better be have a bombproof method to produce quality reviewing (high-profile reviewers, a system of incentives targeted on quality not quantity etc etc).
You can do that de facto in smallish areas through "journal revolts", which have happened a few times, where the senior people of the field all band together to endorse/run a new open-access journal, and basically say, "as far as we're concerned, this is now the top place to publish". For example, when nearly all the senior editors of the journal Machine Learning resigned to form the open-access Journal of Machine Learning Research (http://www.sigir.org/forum/F2001/sigirFall01Letters.html), that also sent a pretty direct signal that JMLR was the new place to publish, at least in these senior researchers' opinion.
I find it baffling that the academics who peer review journals aren't well compensated monetarily for their efforts. Peer review is the only value added to the journals, especially with websites like Arxiv around. As I understand it, academics sign up to be peer reviewers because it adds prestige to their carriers.
Two things need to happen to change academic publishing:
1. Being a peer reviewer for a corrupt journal needs to be viewed not as a feather in an academics cap, but as a contribution to a corrupt system. Basically reviewing Elsevier journals should hurt your carrier not help it.
2. A new system of publishing needs to arise based on well-compensated (and hopefully more effective) peer review and cheap access.
Start-ups can address #2, but you will be dependent on high profile academics like Gower constantly speaking out against the old system.
Perhaps the stumbling block is the personalities of the kind of people who want to work on it. They tend to be open, generous, liberal, accepting. Perhaps journals become prestigious only when run by high-handed, arrogant, rejecting editors.
Prestige is not something you decide you want in the morning and have by evening. A lot of the most prestigious universities are very old, and so it is with the most prestigious journals.
The whole academic culture needs to be changed. People like Gowers who already earned their stripes can begin to change attitudes. 99% of mathematicians can do nothing except hope they can get a permanent job one day. And even then their institutions are going to force them to undergo yearly evaluations where they have to give an account of what papers they wrote that year (too bad if you are working on a multi-year breakthrough) and whether the papers were published in journals they deemed respectable (universities are also competing with each other for prestige).
Another problem is that too many mathematicians are devoutly religious when it comes to speaking out. Any kind of rocking the boat is likely to affect your karma (chance of getting tenure/promotion/funding).