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Friday, July 22, 2011

JSTOR: What is it Good For?

JSTOR logo and Aaron Swartz
Swartz is facing 35 years behind bars for allegedly cracking JSTOR. (Photo: Demand Progress)

Information-liberation guru and alleged hacktivist Aaron Swartz is facing 35 years in prison on a federal indictment [PDF] for breaking into MIT's systems and downloading more than four million academic articles from JSTOR. So, I can't help but see Stuart Buck's point that his doing so wasn't a good idea.

But is JSTOR a good idea?

JSTOR is a non-profit organization that digitizes scholarship and makes it available online – for a fee. JSTOR was launched by the philanthropic Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 1995 to serve the public interest. But it seems to me that today, JSTOR may be more mischievous than munificent.

For instance, on JSTOR I found a 1907 article called "Criminal Appeal in England" published in the Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation. I was offered the opportunity to view this 11-page antique for the dear price of $34.00. And this is despite the fact that my university is a JSTOR "participating institution," and despite the fact that this article is so old, it is no longer subject to copyright.

What's more, by paying $34.00, I would take on some rather severe limitations under JSTOR's terms of service. I could not, for instance, turn around and make this public-domain article available from my own website.

You might ask, why can't JSTOR just make this stuff available for free? After all, JSTOR says its mission is "supporting scholarly work and access to knowledge around the world."

Why indeed, especially considering I CAN GET THE ENTIRE 475-PAGE JOURNAL VOLUME FOR FREE FROM THE INTERNET ARCHIVE and GOOGLE BOOKS. (That includes not just "Criminal Appeal in England," but also such scintilators as "The Late Lord Davey" by the Right Honourable Lord Macnaghten. All for the low, low price of FREE.)

And it's not just old, public domain articles. Current scholarship is increasingly being offered for free from journals' own websites as soon as it is printed. Not to mention the quickly accreting mass of articles on free-access sites SSRN and the Arxiv.

Maybe JSTOR seemed like a good idea when it was launched 16 years ago. But today, if other organizations are doing for free what JSTOR is charging for, then perhaps JSTOR should be dismantled or substantially reworked. JSTOR in a big enterprise, and I am not familar with all of its parts. It may be that JSTOR provides important services that otherwise wouldn't be available. I don't know. But I do know that, at least with part of its collection, JSTOR is playing rope-a-dope, hoping to shake money out of chumps too unlucky to know they could have gotten the same wares for nothing if they just had clicked elsewhere.

JSTOR should act now to make as much of its database free as it can, including all public domain materials and all copyrighted materials for which the requisite permissions can be obtained. It seems to me that the only reason JSTOR would not do so at this point is because JSTOR has become so entrenched that it's more interested in self-perpetuation than public good. And if that's the case, JSTOR may constitute a continuing menace to the preservation of scholarship and access to it – the very things it was founded to promote.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on July 22, 2011 at 05:32 PM in Information and Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink


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It seems a "guerilla activist" has released 18,000 of the JSTOR papers: http://www.technologyreview.com/computing/38112/?p1=A3&a=f

Posted by: Josh Blackman | Jul 24, 2011 5:53:22 PM

Bruce, I don't know British copyright law well enough to shed any light on the effect of that particular act of Parliament. But I do believe the article is in the public domain, at least in the United States. My understanding is that in the United States, first-published-abroad works that were originally published before July 1, 1909 are necessarily in public domain. (Also, for whatever it's worth, Google Books seems to think it's in the public domain.) Now, I don't have the ready knowledge to say for sure that the article isn't subject to copyright protection somewhere outside of the United States, but I doubt it, and, at any rate, JSTOR could certainly make it available for free inside the U.S.

Posted by: Eric E. Johnson | Jul 23, 2011 11:54:46 AM

So, I notice that the Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation was published in London, not the U.S. Just 4 years later Britain extended copyright terms to life of the author plus 50 years. I don't know if that was retroactive. Perhaps the article is not actually in the public domain?

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Jul 22, 2011 10:58:53 PM

Funny, Eric, I'd just gotten done reading an article in the William and Mary Quarterly from 1978 on JSTOR -- which I don't think is available anywhere else for free -- and then I came over to see what's new at prawfs!

JSTOR serves a terrific function for historians. I don't know enough about pricing to know if what my institution pays is reasonable, but there are certainly a lot of things available in it that I can't easily get otherwise. In fact, I see that the WMQ's website points you to JSTOR is you want old content from them.

Posted by: Alfred | Jul 22, 2011 6:11:59 PM

Typo: obviously "nothing having" was meant to be "not having".

Posted by: TJ | Jul 22, 2011 5:45:55 PM

I'm no fan of entrenched organizations, but it seems that where you say that JSTOR is charging "chumps too unlucky to know they could have gotten the same wares for nothing if they just had clicked elsewhere", I see people paying for the value of nothing having to click elsewhere but having an easy, one-place-for-everything convenience.

In fact, isn't this what information-liberation people have been urging copyright holders to do? Allow things like Napster to exist, but beat them by offering more convenience like the iTunes store. But now apparently if you set up an iTunes, people will complain that you are charging for something they could get free elsewhere?

Posted by: TJ | Jul 22, 2011 5:44:28 PM

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