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A screenshot from a video demoing the new service. Credit: JSTOR

JStor, an organization that maintains a database of academic journal articles, is making about 6 percent of its content available to the public for free—articles that were published prior to 1923 in the United States or before 1870 in other countries. It’s a small step, but it’s an important one, because it is a recognition by JStor that it should make its stockpile of academic knowledge more broadly accessible.

That issue has become contentious in recent years, especially with the arrest this summer of Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old Internet activist who is charged with sneaking into MIT to download 4.8 million articles from JStor’s archive. He and other advocates of “open access” have complained that many articles in research journals are accessible only with expensive subscriptions, limiting their audience to elite readers even though the Internet should be facilitating a flourishing of access to information. Harvard scholar Lawrence Lessig blames, among other things, outdated interpretations of copyright law; Swartz has cited greed among publishers of journal articles.

JStor isn’t a publisher of journals; instead it serves as a link to 1,400 journals published by an array of organizations so that people can search articles and download them. It was started by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in the mid-1990s to digitize journals and make them readable online. By persuading journal publishers to join the project, the founders hoped to reduce the skyrocketing costs that libraries were enduring to store paper journals and to ease access to academic research, now that physically traveling to the library to read paper articles was no longer necessary.

But to use JStor freely, a reader has had to be part of an institution with a subscription to the database—such organizations include universities, colleges, public libraries, museums, and even some high schools (with some exceptions: access to JStor has been free for users in Africa since 2006 and in other poor parts of the world since 2008). Readers without subscriptions can buy articles a la carte, but they can be expensive, depending on what individual journal publishers want to charge. Kevin Guthrie, the president of Ithaka, the nonprofit organization that runs JStor, told me in a recent interview that the subscription model has been necessary to cover the costs JStor incurs to operate the online service. It also has been necessary, he said, because of the contractual obligations JStor has with the publishers from which it licenses content. But he acknowledged that the setup can frustrate members of the wider public, who might find an article on JStor through Google and then be told that it’s not available to be viewed.

That’s why this week’s change, which enables free access to articles in the public domain, is meaningful even though the articles are so old: it is a foot in the door for the public. Although JStor officials declined to elaborate, it’s telling that their letter to publishers and libraries refers to plans for “further access to individuals in the future.”

The news pleased at least one advocate who has criticized JStor in the past: Carl Malamud, founder of Public.Resource.org, which has pushed for wider access to government documents and scholarly research. He said the move was “a very positive step, and JStor should be congratulated for taking it.” Lessig concurred, telling TR: “I think it is a fantastically great step.”

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