It is Sunday Night and I have a quantitative research paper due this week for my Intro to Sociology class. It is a 13 paged paper. My day has been spent devouring Sociology journal articles, mostly accessed through JSTOR. Have you ever tried to use JSTOR? I have an interesting story to tell.

I first became interested in reading and publishing articles before I got into college. My first dabblings in intellectual publishing were very opinionated articles I wanted to pitch to the Agenda. I wanted to help contribute to the immense and free body of academic knowledge that I imagined was out there. To help feed someone else’s intellectual curiosity like mine had been fed. I do not remember what the article that led me to JSTOR was about, but I remember the paywall that came up when I tried to access the research paper. I also remember the frustration.

Years later I think about this and ask myself questions as I write my first bonafide research article.

  1. Did the author of this research paper not want me to access their research?
  2. Does the author make any money at all from the money I spend on their articles?
  3. Where does all the money go?
  4. Why are so many barriers to knowledge put up between people and valuable knowledge?

The more I learn about this, the more appalled I am.

Step back and imagine this picture. Universities create incredible amounts of academic and intellectual work. They make this work available for free. They publish this work through academic publishing syndicates, and are then made to pay to read their own research. Step back even further.

The public – which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system (taxes that you have probably paid in some shape or form,) – has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs. You cannot access this same information that you fund.

Newspapers and think tanks, which could help extend research into the public sphere, are denied free access to the material. Faculty members are rightly bitter that their years of work reaches an audience of a handful, while every year, 150 million attempts to read JSTOR content are denied every year. That is 150 million lost opportunities lost to improve the world’s body of intellectual and academic knowledge. Lot for profit.

JSTOR has taken steps to make academic information easier to access for the general public. The new plan has been dubbed Register & Read. Under this new plan, a user can read a very limited number of articles. When a reader encounters an article in one of 70 select journals, she will have to register, then add the article to an online locker.

A widely recognized historian and writer-Yoni Applebaum says, “Is JSTOR tiptoeing gingerly toward public access, or making a meaningless gesture to ward off critics? Take your pick.” I don’t disagree with him.

JSTOR is quintessentially an obstacle to free academic and intellectual research. My feelings about this are very strong- I am sure you can tell. Academics who contribute to Wikipedia and other important intellectual bodies of work will forego information they know is the best, but is hidden behind a paywall in JSTOR’s treasure trove of intellectual research.

In what kind of world is this right?

Sources:

LAURA MCKENNA “Locked in the Ivory Tower: Why JSTOR Imprisons Academic Research” The Atlantic, 20 January 2012, The Atlantic.

ALEXIS C. MADRIGAL “Every Year, JSTOR Turns Away 150 Million Attempts to Read Journal Articles” The Atlantic, 13 January 2012, The Atlantic

I am not the first to be appalled by this.