JSTOR responds and previews

Last week I posted some positive thoughts on JSTOR and suggested that JSTOR might have a role in the new conversation about the distribution of scholarly knowledge. Harvard’s recent decision to self-distribute is very forward thinking and may have significant effects on academic publishing in the future.

The next day after posting the JSTOR post (in fact, about 12 hours after posting it) I got a call in my office from Jason Phillips, associate director for library relations at JSTOR. We talked for about an hour, and Jason answered numerous questions I had about JSTOR’s business and their plans for the future. Needless to say I was seriously impressed by Jason’s eagerness to make contact and his forthrightness about JSTOR’s work. Here are some nuggets from that conversation — much of this stuff is available on their website, if I had taken the time to look it up (which is all the more reason to be impressed by Jason’s call!).

1. The cost of the subscriptions to JSTOR which libraries have to pay (and my main point of criticism) is directly related to the cost of production (mainly scanning) and managing the content (archiving the data and preserving it). Hardware and software upgrades are part of this cost too: more on that below. JSTOR is technically a non-profit company, so all of its revenue goes back into the archival and maintenance process.

2. The publishers set the “moving wall” between the archive and the new volumes. No new publishers have a moving wall greater than seven years and most are at around three years. After first saying that the moving wall was a “joint decision”, Jason backed up and said that JSTOR “allows” for the gap in order to secure the publishers and archive their data. JSTOR does “revenue share” with publishers, but Jason claimed this was minimal. Essentially the publishers are not paid for having their content on JSTOR. That was probably the most enlightening piece of information for me and gives me more confidence about JSTOR’s role in the future model.

3. The moving wall discussion led to what I find most interesting, namely that JSTOR is largely a free-agent in all of this. They don’t really seem beholden to academic publishers, yet they do their best to be a responsible liaison between the publishers and libraries. This must be a crucial role because the publishers are willing to let their content be distributed without receiving much in the way of royalties. In other words, the archiving and distribution process must be worth more to them monetarily than the rights they have to all those back volumes. That fact is saying something really important about the “real money” value of archiving and distribution.

4. Now, this is where Harvard’s new model comes into the picture. What happens when a new method of distribution is taken up by a major university with lots of money and clout? Up to this point, of course, the university has been the consumer and has largely funded JSTOR’s archival process (in addition to donations from charitable institutions like the Mellon foundation, which founded JSTOR). But if the university gets into the archival and distribution business and, eventually, has no need for JSTOR — I’m assuming Harvard is going to digitize and self-distribute all the content in their library via someone other than or in addition to Google, which seems inevitable — then what is JSTOR’s role? And how are the publishers going to respond to this new economy of academic publishing? Especially given that it looks like Harvard will use its own weight to distribute as much as possible freely. (This is a huge copyright debate waiting to happen, and Harvard actually has the money and the will to fight it, which is exciting.) I asked Jason specifically what he thought JSTOR’s role in this new economy would be, and his answer was cautious and thoughtful. He said that JSTOR was essentially “a project” and “an archive” and does not necessarily need to exist in the future. However, JSTOR has 4,500 libraries “involved in” (i.e. subscribing to) the project and has a responsibility to them. More pointedly, he said that JSTOR’s mission statement had recently changed, and the organization is now calling itself a “platform for scholarship”. So, as I guessed, JSTOR certainly seems to be positioning itself to become a delivery mechanism for archived knowledge in the future, in whatever form that may occur, and very probably saw Harvard’s decision coming. Jason agreed with me that it was exciting and he pointed out that JSTOR had done a lot of work in the R&D of digitization technology, which is now being used by libraries all over the world, like Harvard, as well as by corporate partners/competitors like Google.

5. Speaking of redefinition and innovation, Jason encouraged me to take a look at the preview version of JSTOR’s new interface. I hope to write a review of this in the future — perhaps when it’s released in a month or so. Suffice it to say for the moment that this is an entirely new platform for them and the interface is attempting to be more individualized, with a “saved citations” section. It looks good so far — my only recommendation was that they put a thumbnail of the pdf next to the citation because, ultimately, that’s the direction all of this is heading (and is already there if you use Zotero) — you want the actual text of the article/book right next to (and incorporated with) the reference. This is something RefWorks (as I understand it) does not do, and EndNote in my experience handles this functionality rather poorly. In any case, you want a Cloud version of all your stuff anyway in case your computer gets lost or you are using a public terminal. So, it seems to me that JSTOR is moving in the right direction (viewing your pdfs is a two-click movement away from the citation list — that should be one click away and nested within the list). FWIW, you can also export selected citations from your library which is a nice feature, though I haven’t yet tested the fidelity to established bibliographical standards.

6. Finally, some criticisms. Or, rather, questions. The future is still very blurry to me, especially as it regards smaller universities and schools who cannot afford JSTOR’s (and the like’s) subscription rates. JSTOR is available in a huge number of countries but not all the universities in those countries have access to JSTOR. That’s a major issue that will need to be resolved. In some ways Harvard is going to bat for those universities while it goes to bat for itself. In terms of the new JSTOR platform, it is still a central issue that not everything is archived there. The knowledge is only as available as it’s available (duh). In other words, if they don’t have it archived (or if it’s behind the moving wall), many people will assume it doesn’t exist, including many of my students, who understandably struggle with this concept. A single archive, or better, a single network of interconnected archives (whether university or non-profit based) is going to emerge in the next several years (with no moving walls), and I assume that Harvard is already thinking about what this will look like. My point still stands, and perhaps is further emphasized by Jason’s helpful comments, that JSTOR has the ability to be involved in this if they so choose. The two keys, to me at least, are that 1) it needs to be free, and 2) it needs to be easy and clear. Neither key is currently the case across the board. JSTOR has largely achieved the second key and may be a viable option for those trying to achieve the first.

(Many thanks again to Jason Phillips for his enthusiasm and patience.)