More on JSTOR

I have the feeling from my post on Harvard’s recent decision that I’m being a little unfair to JSTOR-type services. There are, of course, numerous benefits to JSTOR, and certain crucial questions arise about this hypothetically utopian world without JSTOR and their ilk:

1. How will scholars go about retrieving archived articles if scholarship is linked to the university where the professors worked when those particular publications came out? Universities will obviously have to develop an open-access database to share all of these articles in a central location. Maybe JSTOR could even spearhead this initiative since they have the technology. But, as with our current system, any cost passed on to universities will ultimately be prohibitive for some smaller schools, unless the cost is truly minimal. Better, I think, to just make the whole thing free from the beginning.

2. There is a difference between JSTOR and other services, such as Project Muse, in terms of which issues of journals are on offer. JSTOR typically, at least in my experience, deals in the archives of a given journal, with the most recent five years or so being handled in a different way. Sometimes the academic publisher itself does it, or it can be outsourced. Project Muse, by contrast, seems to carry more recent journals only. For instance, two of the more important journals on Muse for my work, Classical World and the Journal of Early Christian Studies do not extend back to the first issues. And if you scan the list of what’s available on Muse, it seems like this is true across the board: not many begin before the late 1990’s.

3. A point raised to me in personal correspondence by my colleague and friend Prof. Greg Smith is that the “more available” journals are certainly affecting what is being read by students and researchers. If the journal is on JSTOR, then it’s more likely to get read than if it’s not. Or, as is often the case, there are multiple login screens between the user and the articles — or if the site is poorly designed — the likelihood of the student accessing that article is quite low. Given that I’m rather adept at this sort of research, comparatively speaking, way too often do I get bogged down in login/splash screens just in search of a decent pdf I can read. JSTOR is certainly much more user-friendly, as is Project Muse, and I think that’s partly why they’re well known and used. But the flip-side of that usability is a little scary. I’ve had students just search JSTOR not realizing that a whole host of scholarly literature isn’t stored there. Yet there’s a critical enough mass that it appears as if the whole world’s knowledge is at their fingertips. I’ve seen students dumbfounded when I search for their topic on Google Scholar and about 100 more references come up than what they found in JSTOR.

4. Finally, where is all the money going? That’s something I still can’t get my head around. Are the journals getting rich or is it the digital clearing houses? If it’s so cost prohibitive to subscribe that small colleges and schools can’t afford some journals, who is getting rich off of the process? Obviously it’s not the authors. I really don’t know the answer to this.