Thursday, May 24, 2007

A conversation with JSTOR's Bruce Heterick

I had a good conversation the other day with Bruce Heterick, Director, Library Relations, at JSTOR.

Some readers of IMproPRieTies may have noticed our recent interest in JSTOR, which mainly derived from (1) searching for certain topics in the Humanities and Social Sciences, (2) discovering with glee that interesting articles from scholarly journals are now online, (3) realizing with consternation that such articles lie behind an institutional barrier that blocks access to anyone not affiliated with a participating institution, and (4) registering puzzlement that anyone would take all sorts of pains to firewall knowledge -- knowledge mainly produced by scholars at not-for-profit institutions of higher learning devoted to bringing light into our world.

Heterick was generous with his time, and patient with my questions. The first thing to say is that the firewall was less an aim of the original design than a function of it -- i.e., they didn't create online access to valuable scholarly knowledge with the idea of enjoying being able to say "Nanni Nanni Boo Boo" to anyone lacking the requisite institutional handshake.

In fact, and here's the maybe-if-and-when good news, the presiding lights behind JSTOR are now looking at various ways and means to open its treasurehouse to all, because they understand that that makes all sorts of sense. They simply have to ensure that by doing so, they don't remove the parts of their economic model that have enabled them to build a self-sufficient, independent 501(c)3 organization in a relatively short time.

Let me back up and offer some of what Heterick shared with me about JSTOR (more background here and, in book form via here.)

The founding aim of JSTOR was less dissemination than preservation. The problem it was created to solve was the spiraling costs of library space required to house, redundantly, physical copies of hundreds of scholarly journals. William Bowen, a former president of Princeton, is credited with the idea of building a central archive that would preserve and curate complete sets of journals print editions, and become the basis for a digital archive libraries could access electronically.

The project began in 1995 with seed money from the Andrew Mellon Foundation with just a few titles, housing them in archives in California and at Harvard. Over time JSTOR has developed into an independent not-for-profit entity that currently holds some 900 titles (of which 725 or so are online, and the balance are somewhere on their way to digital existence) representing 23 million pages of content, 4 million full-length articles, spanning 47 academic disciplines. About 430 publishers participate in JSTOR currently; the strongest topic areas of the collection are in Economics and History.

The business model supporting JSTOR's evolution has worked like this: It invites publishers (primarily non-commercial, university presses) to participate, on the basis of various academic criteria. Any publisher who chooses to do so agrees that it will freely grant rights in perpetuity to all issues of the journal (1) going back to its first issue, and (2) going forward to a set time period prior to the current issue. Known as the "moving wall," this is a period anywhere from no time at all (in the case of one journal) to five years or more which the journal retains the rights, in case they have some economic value. So every year, a new year's worth of older issues automatically gets processed for and becomes part of JSTOR's permanent collection.

The publishers give their older content to JSTOR in part because they deem it to have little or no economic value. (Its epistemic value is another story.)

JSTOR scans the physical editions, and places the printed copies in its archives. The digital content is then grouped into one or more of 14 collections that JSTOR makes available to universities, research societies, government-funded agencies and other nonprofits on a subscription basis. A small research society might pay $300 annually for a narrow slice of the pie; large universities might subscribe to all the collections for several thousand dollars a year. Currently about 3,300 institutions participate, half in the US, half elsewhere, and about four-fifths of them are instititutions of higher learning.

With so much of its energy devoted to the muscle work of preservation, JSTOR has clearly prioritized its archival function. But it has along the way begun to look at the possibilities for more open access to its collections. Any qualifying institution in Africa can get access to its entire collection for free. There are special rates for high schools and an effort to get more public libraries to buy in.

Enter Google

Now, all this was taking place in the background, without much in the way of public notice, until last year, when JSTOR allowed Google to spider its online archives. Suddenly JSTOR articles began appearing high in people's google searches for all kinds of information, from Homer to Romantic Poetry to recent epistemology.

At which point, Heterick said, requests for JSTOR's online material "exploded." JSTOR found itself in the interesting position of letting it teasingly be known that it has an astonishing wealth of scholarship at the same time as it was saying to any unaffiliated researcher at its gate: "Not now."

JSTOR hadn't thought of offering a pay-per-view access before Google crawled its archive. Now, as of January, JSTOR has invited its publishers to make their titles available to unaffiliated researchers on a pay-per-view basis. Only about 150 titles are currently available, and the pricing is entirely at the publisher's discretion - which is not necessarily within most readers' reach (I've heard various prices per article: $35, $60 -- who do they think they are, the New York Times?).

JSTOR is looking at other ways to not simply emulate Kafka. In fact, says Heterick, it once did explore an individual access model, but ran into "difficulties" -- still, the goal of open access is very much on its mind.

“It’s not a question of if we should do it but when we can do it and not devolve our preservation goals,” he says. “Would people or libraries be willing to pay to maintain JSTOR and maintain its long term mission of archiving? We don’t know… .”

Would institutional libraries continue to pay the subscription fees if the journals were openly available to all? On one hand, why should they? Still, it's not impossible: after all, JSTOR is ensuring the immortality of the work of...scholars at these same universities. It's also saving the costs of continually adding space. Until recently, those running our institutions of higher learning might not have recognized that value, but, Heterick says, that seems to be changing. They now see that they can create new more attractive kinds of learning environments (Starbucks in the reading room?) instead of facing the dull chore of finding places to add stacks.

In short, it's not for a lack of a will to disseminate that so much scholarship remains behind the JSTOR firewall, and that's good news. It's a matter of finding the right economics. One possibility: instead of pay-per-view, users could pay for a slice of time -- a day, week, etc. of unlimited access.


I've heard from a few people who shared my interest in access to JSTOR and to other virtual closed stacks, including Project MUSE and BioOne (thanks to Frank Paynter for the latter).

Your turn: Thoughts on this? Suggestions for a more open business model? Philanthropists! Got a few million smackers to put it all right?

[Long overdue update: A follow-up to this discussion, here, contains two significant and deflating clarifications.]

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It looks, smells, tastes, waddles and quacks a lot like a library. How do libraries get money? Why don't we bulldoze all the library buildings, sell the real estate and give the money to JSTOR?

5/24/2007 1:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the problems with JSTOR (and the other digital collections) is that they eliminate the informal method of gaining access to the gated grove. You can't just show up at JSTOR and make friends with the librarians. Librarians who will, perhaps, overlook the fact that you haven't paid your alumni association dues and that you are no longer either a student nor an employee of an esteemed institution of higher learning. When it comes to getting access to information a winning smile can be more effective than the proper academic handshake - at least in the real world.

5/24/2007 4:37 PM  
Blogger fpaynter said...

Next Friday there is a Berkman conference called "University." They have interesting workshops planned around topics like "Alternative UNIVERSITY Models for Scholarly Publications," and "UNIVERSITY and its Library."

This use of UNIVERSITY without the article is more than an affectation. I gather that there is a movement afoot to signify, to identify, to organize a countervailing cultural power to GOVERNMENT and MARKETPLACE. But it is a little annoying to hear before you've had a glass of the kool aid.

5/24/2007 5:53 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Anon: It will come to that.

Larah: In Second Life, maybe?

fp: Thanks - I see David Weinberger is facilitating a discussion of the university and its library. I'm interested, as I've been ditheringly trying to apply his taxonomy of taxonomies (first, second, third order) to this very example.

5/24/2007 6:56 PM  
Blogger fpaynter said...

I plan to attend. I hope the conversation moves beyond the hand-wringing over Google's participation in scanning everything in print.

Interesting though, that a 501c3 would be trusted with archiving scholarly journals, while a for profit enterprise is criticized for scanning the books.

5/25/2007 8:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As usual, ad-driven websites are the only answer. A second best stumble would be a yearly fee... under $50 for total personal access, but again what a waste of time, that model is an crude incumbent model near it's death-bed. The hits-per-page would be incessantly crippled and thus profit unnecessarily demised.

Sites that generate high visits can yank in their sustaining revenue without the (economically temporal) gauntlet. It's time for all such companies to warm and wake into the true light that is the future of total availability and stop wasting time.
I want JSTOR, but I'm not willing to sit in a library to view it, just as most people aren't.. there are billions on the internet, but how many people are sitting in libraries?
With a subscription fee I would be greatly hesitant even, and millions would endlessly balk. With free access troves of millions would plummet through the pages, and like a water-wheel, the ads would more than pay the $$ they need to continue, AND grow.

check out:

It's either now or later, but either way, they're all going to come around. It all comes down to one large database having the guts to do what will inevitably work. I would hope that the visionaries will understand this sooner than later, as the glass ceiling of availability is cramping the entirety of humanity.

A JSTOR will have to transition into a business instead of a sheltered entity to do this, but the journals will profit in a tied pay-out model, and so the journals will begin their full release instead of the limited release as well, and JSTOR will profit in quality, quantity, and in good ol' $$$.

this is the future... period.
those who see it and act on it are doing themselves a favor, and for those who wait.. hmm, well every loses.

it's time for all this baby-stepping to stop, it just makes people look silly.

5/30/2007 5:45 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Anon: you say, and I agree, that sitting in libraries to access JSTOR is not the way of the future. Partly because libraries are coming to us. Requiring spatial or institutional location in order to enter a virtual realm is anachronistic at best.

I'm less convinced about ad-driven sites being the answer, or at least the sole and complete answer.

Let's posit as a shared piece of humane wisdom that knowledge doesn't simply want to be free, but must be free, because anything less than that is unworthy.

Start there, then figure out how to make it happen. Because if we allow ad-driving to drive, we might have the curious situation wherein scholarly articles about things like Juvenal would be festooned with ads for member enhancers, or houses of ill repute, or, worse, no ads at all. The rarified discourse of the humanities isn't geared to a lot of commercial enterprise, and there's then the worrisome thought that at some future time, articles will be valued by how much they do in ad revenues. It would be unfortunate if the market were to throw its weight around here, if that makes sense.

But the main concern would be that it would not be clear to users that the rationale has to do with the value and importance of knowledge, not with advertised stuff.

I can however see a fit between JSTOR and Amazon or other publishers - pull up an article by someone, and see ads to other of his books in print, or out of print. Or works of art inspired by the subject matter. Or new translations. A whole web of related things, not all ads, but more like an enriched resource in which some of the things are free, others may be for sale. Let's get over the idea that things only have value if there is a paypal button attached to them, or a clickthru revenue model.

Free knowledge and let the chips fall where they may.

5/30/2007 11:04 PM  
Blogger Roger Pearse said...

I'm glad to see that JSTOR are aware of the problem. We can all sympathise with their financial constraints, since we see that they would like to get around them.

But I have reservations about this idea that publishers should own all this material anyway. As far as I know all of it is published by people whose salaries are paid by taxpayers, for use by other people 100% tax-funded, and published in journals only bought by 100% tax-funded institutions. And the publishing houses make money off this.

This worked for everyone in the pre-internet days. They bore the costs of publishing, after all. But ... does it now? How does it benefit the tax-payer to have people like this blocking all of us from access to stuff we fund? How is it equitable, even?

JSTOR needs to be tax-funded, it seems to me, just like the other parts of the cycle. It certainly should be accessible to all, from home.

As for publishers demanding money based on copyrights which they got for nothing, I feel that they need to be bought off on a once-only basis or otherwise dealt with legislatively. They would be no longer allies of scholarship, but enemies of learning if they were to persist in demanding a toll for us to access it.

How, politically, do we get there?

6/09/2007 9:12 AM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

Robert, on your last question, this from Scholz might be of use.

6/10/2007 6:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole idea of jstor is to preserve knowledge and pass it on. But now someone started to smell money. Jstor needs to get back into the business of passing on knowledge, even if they have to pay for gas, electricity, and storage. Else, they're going to become another irrelevant vendor of info that no one wants to pay for. What next? Sell advertising? Send out spam? Please; it's Jstor, not J-store.


9/19/2007 3:30 PM  
Blogger HuskerDru said...

Roger P. - I think you mischaracterize the tax-funding situation with publishers and their subscribers (academic institutions). What you say would be true if, and only if, the only subscribers to JSTOR were public institutions, but what about Harvard, Yale, Princeton, et al.? These are nothing resembling 100% tax-funded institutions.

Taxpayers do not pall all of these people's salaries (by a long shot)...yes, researchers get much funding from public sources (NSF, CDC, NIH, etc.), but also from private foundations.

I don't necessarily disagree with your conclusion about how places like JSTOR may be funded, but it is not a cut-and-dried 100% tax-funded situation in academic publishing, as you imply.

9/20/2007 12:09 PM  
Blogger Nancy Volle in Missoula, Montana said...

I am interested in architectural and garden design history and constantly get JSTOR hits on Google. To be denied access is agony.

Your article was very helpful in understanding this miserable situation. Thanks for publishing it.

10/04/2007 12:37 PM  
Blogger YerbaMan said...

I find it very frustrating to be refused access for an appropriate price - and by that I mean at most 100$ per year for all I can read, not the fascist $35 per article. To ask $35/article would be 40x more expensive per page than a book - and many articles (the good ones) get into anthologies in books sooner or later - so the book price comparison is not forced in this context.

So please ask me for 2 cents a page, not 2$. I would for example "UPLOAD" 10$ to JSTOR and read for 2 cents a page.

But they don't do that because they fear that their institutional customers would flee. So they cut access to 99% of the world so that they can extract higher $ from a handful of institutions. That's capitalism at its worst.

Non profit my ass. It's sucking us dry for the privilege to read papers that should be free (most of the research was paid for by the government anyway). So much for good intentions.

2/23/2008 4:16 PM  
Anonymous Lexapro said...

Your article was very helpful in understanding this miserable situation. Thanks for publishing it.

12/17/2011 1:56 AM  

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