Spotlight: JSTOR

Following on from digital libraries, I thought it’d be worthwhile to examine an example or two, to see how they operate. One of the largely recogniseable ones is JSTOR.

History and Formation

JSTOR (Journal Storage) is a digital library setup in 1995. As of now, it stores digitalised content of books and journals of more than 8,000 institutions in more than 160 countries. It stores files in a .PDF format, meaning you need Adobe Acrobat to view. However, most computers comes with this per-installed anyways.

Its history can be traced to a time when physical libraries had issues with the amount of academic journals  around. As more and more journals were being published, libraries found it increasingly expensive and time-consuming to maintain the growing collections. JSTOR stepped in with a proposition to help libraries by digitalising their massive contents. As a result, JSTOR allowed libraries to outsource storage for the long-term future, as the transition to the internet improved access dramatically. JSTOR access was improved based on feedback from its initial sites, and it became a fully searchable index accessible from any ordinary Web browser.

Due to the initial success, the client base expanded in participating journals. The process was by no means quick.  JSTOR content is provided by more than 900 publishers now, with the database containing over 1,900 journal titles ranging 50 disciplines.

Business Model and Operation

JSTOR stresses that it is a not-for-profit business, which was established to help academic libraries and publishers with the workload of storage and converting print to digital content. The company is not a publisher in itself (meaning content is published by either the authors or publishing houses), and also does not take exclusive rights to any content shown.

This is different to the operations of Steam or Facebook, which largely own the rights to content that is published on site. JSOTR acts as an intermediary, allowing users to store their work and keep the copyrights. Whatever is shown is subject to those owner’s permission, although it appears that they have consented anyway if they allow their work to be shown in the first place.  Think of it as like a safety-deposit box, with the owners having the key.

In order to remain in business, JSTOR instead charges fees from libraries and institutions. These organisations are frequent partners of JSTOR, numbering thousands across the world. Fees are judged depending on the type of institutions under question. Research universities contribute much higher fees than small colleges. Community colleges, public libraries and high schools pay much less for access to the same privileges. For example, small high schools pay only $750 annually for access compared to the thousands of research universities. Some places even have free access.

The model is designed to provide the widest access to scholarship and accessibility. The money made from fees is used to fund newer technologies to support the use of content on the site, to provide outreach and support for constituents, and pays license fees for content owners.

Accessibility and Content Provided

One of the perks and original goals of JSTOR is to provide this content to those who are not necessarily part of a university or research institution. Following on from above, aside from paying considerably less fees, general libraries offers walk-in users free access as they operate under a specific scheme. This can allow extra broadening of JSTOR services to casual users. In addition to this, free access is provided for almost hundreds of thousands of articles in the public domain.

Not only is this profitable, but also boosts coverage and exposure of the website. The JSTOR team regularly conducts tests and checks with users on the functionality and accessibility of their website. PDF files, when clicked, are tagged fully to ensure increased accessibility of the files.  This way you ensure your best possible chances of people using your services and that they are working correctly.

Most of the content actually comprises of the social science and humanities disciplines.  There is a misconception that many people assume these kinds of articles are funded by governments and other interested parties, which should therefore be free to view. Sometimes journals are funded, but there is no way of telling which ones are funded or not. This is because content can come from a range of different disciplines.


JSTOR Home Page

Most of the publishers of the journals are non-governmental not-for-profit organisations themselves. Even if they are funded, this would not necessarily remove the costs of actually digitalising the content, making it easily searchable, and the preservation of its long-term future.

JSTOR has made steady progress in expanding options to people. With the digital boom, there has been an increased awareness and interest within academic content from both academia and general public (e.g. Google search). As early as 1999 – before broadband – JSTOR setup a program where more than 110 publishers could provide access to their complete collection of 350 journals on JSTOR directly to individuals, some as a benefit of society membership and some for a fee.

Speaking of Google, JSTOR has seen its usefulness in this goal. In 2006, they made an agreement with Google to index its entire full-text content. This facilitated access for students and faculty using Google for search but also introduced JSTOR to millions of people around the world. Search results within Google now included several from JSTOR itself, thereby allowing people to notice the website through this means.

When JSTOR first started establishing itself, the developers did not take into account how the technological advancements played out. The new worldwide demand for knowledge and information rapidly expanded with the world wide web, and especially from those not affiliated with any institutions. Now having clearly learned the potentials, JSTOR is busy working with partners to meet this demand.

They setup a ‘publisher sales service’ which gives the publishers to make individual articles available ‘for sale’ through JSTOR (numbering around 850 currently). The price for purchasing individual articles is set by each publisher and includes a flat fee to cover JSTOR’s costs for providing the service.

They also operate a service known as ‘Data for Research.’ This service is intended to be used by the research community, where DfR is a set of web-based tools for selecting, searching and interacting with content from the JSTOR archive.  The service also provides the ability to obtain data sets via bulk downloads. What DfR allows is the full-text and fielded search of the entire JSTOR archive via a powerful search interface (it would need to be powerful anyway to cover the range). The use of this interface would allow one to quickly and easily define contest through iterative processes of searching and results filtering.

Criticisms of the System

JSTOR is clearly successful, but is not without its limitations. As ironic as it sounds,  despite the deep wealth of content on its archives, the availability of many of these journals is controlled by a ‘moving wall’ business model. The moving wall is essentially an embargo.  Within ‘academic publishing’, an embargo refers to the period when access to content is prohibited to certain people.

The purpose of this is to protect the revenue of the publisher. The embargo can separate the most recent period (for which subscription is needed), from an older period where anyone can view the article. This acts as a virtual barrier so that new content is not diluted with the old, and where money could be potentially lost. The period is usually between 2 months to 5 years.

The moving wall concept is the period between the last issue of an academic journal shown on a online database/digital library, and the most recently published print issue of a journal. This is specified by publishers in agreement with databases, and generally ranges from several months to several years. In other words, the moving wall is the agreed-upon delay between the current volume of the journal and the latest volume available on JSTOR.

Due to JSTOR giving a lot of control to publishers, the latter can willingly or forcefully change the period at will. Formerly publishers could also request that the ‘moving wall’ be changed to a ‘fixed wall’ – a specified date after which JSTOR would not add new volumes to its database. In metaphorical terms, the fence becomes a solid brick wall. These fixed wall agreements are still in effect. This, of course, seems to go against JSTOR’s goal of increased accessibility for all.There is a difference between how many can see the content,and how many are able to read it.

The publisher is the key player and we need to understand their mindset. They need money and distribution channels to supplement its (usually niche) market. To make cash, the publisher sells the rights to an academic search engine company (JSTOR for one) and in the process, becomes highly profitable. They become highly profitable because, unlike traditional publishing, the publisher does not have to pay the writer or editor. It only has to cover the costs of typesetting, printing, and distribution.

JSTOR then sells back the content they have digitalised to university libraries to recoup the costs of digitalising (via the fees model). Remember also that these institutions are amongst the ones that must pay a very hefty fee. A substantial part of the university library budget is devoted towards subscriptions. It’s not surprising to hear that university libraries can often pay a one-off charge of $45,000 and then $8,500 every year after (at least as far as UC San Diego is concerned).

But the point is that universities who created this academic content for free must pay to read it, and quite dearly. The general public, those ones that JSTOR is trying to reach, are often barred from viewing certain content. General libraries cannot afford to pay that much and still stay in business each year. The media are also restricted of information. There’s resentment from academics that their work actually reaches less people than they hoped, after giving years of research. That’s staggering if JSTOR is to be believed that it turns away on average 150 million attempts to view articles.

We should be careful not to blame this solely on publishers. Everyone has to make a profit to continue, but parallels can be drawn with the music industry and the ways in which royalties and fees are distributed amongst the pyramid. In many ways, publishers acts as an inhibitor to accessibility and, quite rightly, there are criticisms of this. This is contradictory to JSTOR’s own aims. Whilst not all content comes under this scrutiny, a substantial number is effected. The challenge would be to devise a way in which such restrictions are removed.


One thought on “Spotlight: JSTOR

  1. Pingback: JSTOR for Christmas | dcwodehouse

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