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An organization that maintains a huge database of academic research plans to soon let the public view some of the trove of information for free—a big boost for the idea of “open access” to the world’s knowledge.

As part of its new program, which is expected to enter beta mode in the coming weeks, the JStor service will let anyone view articles from 70 journals after registering with the website. The reader then can view up to three documents at a time in a “frame” on the site.

There are some limitations. For one thing, the free access won’t let readers download or print the articles; those privileges will still be reserved for people who buy the articles or are affiliated with schools and libraries that pay for JStor subscriptions. Second, this beta program includes just a small portion of the 1,400 academic journals in JStor’s online database.

However, if it works out, JStor says, it could expand the program to most or nearly all of the database. And the fact that JStor is even testing the idea at all is a dramatic change. Previously, nonsubscribers who came across articles in JStor through a Web search could see only the first page of the document; in some cases, they would be asked to buy the article for fees that could exceed $20. That barrier angered advocates of open access, who contend that the Internet should be breaking down obstacles to finding knowledge. One such activist, Aaron Swartz, was indicted last summer for exploiting MIT’s JStor subscription to download 4.8 million articles from the archive.

Kevin Guthrie, the president of Ithaka, the nonprofit organization that runs JStor, told Technology Review in an interview last summer that people who were calling for open access underestimated the costs associated with digitizing journals and enabling online access to them. Because of that overhead, JStor couldn’t just give its archive away. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation created JStor in the mid-1990s as a way to relieve libraries from the escalating costs of storing paper journals, which meant that a big part of JStor’s mission was to ensure its own sustainability.

However, Guthrie acknowledged that members of the public could be frustrated upon encountering a piece of research and being told it was off-limits. JStor says it has been turning people away from seeing an article 150 million times a year. That wall led critics such as Harvard scholar Lawrence Lessig to claim that JStor facilitated a kind of information elitism.

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Credit: Technology Review

Tagged: Computing, Web, JSTOR

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