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Research Archive JStor Moves Toward Open Access

A nonprofit organization that holds millions of pieces of academic work will soon let the public see it for free.
January 13, 2012

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.

JStor has taken a few steps over the years to counter this perception: it began giving away access in Africa in 2006, and in other poor parts of the world in 2008. Last summer it made old, out-of-copyright articles available for free. But none of those efforts was as far-reaching as the new program, which JStor calls “Register & Read.”

The titles being liberated in the new program come in a range of disciplines—examples include the American Journal of Botany, which is published by the Botanical Society of America; the Journal of Law and Criminology, published by Northwestern University; Film Quarterly, from the University of California; and Proceedings: Biological Sciences, from the Royal Society.

JStor cautions that Register & Read will be an experiment. If it doesn’t work for the scholarly societies and other organizations that own the content that JStor makes available online, Register & Read might have to be scaled back or modified, JStor’s leaders say. But Guthrie told TR that overall, JStor and academic publishers had reached a point where it was wise to try creative methods of enabling access. A scholarly society might now lose out on $30 sales of journal articles but find that widening the exposure to those articles increases their dues-paying memberships. “We all have to disrupt ourselves,” he said.

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