Academic database "imprisons" research

Laura McKenna excoriates JSTOR, the online database of academic journals that has universities and the public paying thousands of dollars to read their own taxpayer-funded research. [The Atlantic]


  1. Uhhh…
    “That’s because, for the most part, only individuals with a college ID card can read academic journal articles.”

    This is bullshit. You can walk into most, if not all, university libraries, and ask to use their resources. Some are open to the public, others might ask you to sign in, but they aren’t going to turn you away. Many, if not all, public libraries can obtain these articles through the ILL system, if they don’t have access to JSTOR directly. The author is just plain lazy, unwilling to do even a modicum of research while claiming they are researching the research tool.

    Besides, JSTOR doesn’t even have the most up to date articles out there. Most stuff is going to be at least 2-3 years old. The study dismissing the link between autism and vaccinations ain’t that old… This idiocy makes me see red.

    1. I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.  UC Berkeley, for example, requires an ID to enter the library.  You have to show it on the way in.

      California residents can purchase a card for $100/year: 

      Also, there’s a real difference how access functions. When I worked at UC, I had a library proxy and could do a huge amount of research from my desk. Writing papers was fast and easy. Then I moved to SFSU: they only have a small part of JSTOR accessible, so things were a little harder. Now I’m an independent scholar and research takes a fair bit of effort. True, it isn’t impossible. But I do find that there is a significant barrier to producing the same kind of work I did when affiliated with a large university.

      1. It should also be noted that, while this particular article addresses JSTOR specifically, the problem–that in order to access the results of publicly-funded research libraries have to pay private publishers enormous amounts–includes Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, and some others, all of which do have more recent content.

        I’m also not sure where the claim that “Most stuff is going to be at least 2-3 years old” on JSTOR comes from. They have quite a bit of current content.

      2. While the UC Berkeley library is in fact a member of the set of All University Libraries, it isn’t the only one. Many do not require an ID for admission.

        1. The two UC Davis libraries that I’ve used the most often (Physical Sciences and the Main/Shields Library) have never required ID from my experiences to get into them. The medical sciences and law libraries required a card to get into them.

      3. Technically, it depends on the library. Biosciences and Physics (last time I checked, because I use Berkeley libraries a lot) don’t require ID cards to get into. The Main Library and the Math library (iirc), do require them.

    2. I was thrilled when I finally got access to a University library again for grad school, because I hadn’t been able to access JSTOR for five years to do any of my independent research.  I’m a citizen of New Hampshire, and discovered that only Durham residents were allowed to access UNH’s library without being a student.  And do you think the private colleges and universities in the state are going to be any more generous?
      This article is short, sweet, to the point, and spot on for many of us.  I am pretty damn jealous that you live in a city that breaks these rules.

  2. I happen to live within biking distance of one university library, and within an expensive bus-and-subway journey of some excellent libraries. So I’m relatively lucky in terms of access to specific articles. But I look at some of the people claiming that anyone can reach these libraries, and anyone can get access through these libraries, and I wonder at their privileged ignorance. Not everyone can reach these articles. Not everyone can afford the hours of travel. Not everyone has the chance to learn how to use the databases.

    1. Most public libraries have ILL agreements. It’s not perfect, not all of them will have everything, but obtaining these article isn’t impossible.
      It seems to me that the author of this article wants everything in their living room, free I might add. Which is fine. One can want that. But unlike, say, licensed music, it is relatively easy to obtain academic articles.

  3. Well as long as it’s not theoretically impossible to get the article, no worries.   Really?  Do you want your doctor to have a pay wall preventing him/her from reading clinically relevant material about your condition?  Doctors should be reading as many articles as possible.  Why would you add to the time and money required to do that? 

    1. JSTOR, fortunately, is mainly social science. If you want to talk about restrictive, lets point the finger at the New England Journal of Medicine. Last time I checked they had a clause where authors even gave up fair use rights. Most universities will let you access JSTOR from anywhere on campus, but NEJM access is limited to only a few machines.

      1. JSTOR isn’t mainly social science. Botany’s kind of been a hobby of mine for a very long time and they also archive a lot of the major botanical journals such as Kew Bulletin and Brittonia that handle generic revision and new species discovery.

        I do see their policies as overly restrictive anyways, though, and agree with the general tenor of the responses here against it.

  4. As a sometimes-researcher who lives outside of academia, I’ve found it far easier to just email the author and ask for a copy of the article, and just bypass JSTOR.  That’ll actually work 99% of the time.

    But man, in grad school, JSTOR was my bestest friend.

    1.  +1 to this – even when you do have access to the databases (science databases are just as bad as JSTOR by the way) it’s usually a lot easier to e-mail one of the authors to get it.

      If you don’t get a response from the lead author, try to figure out which one of the secondary authors is/was a grad student and e-mail them. They’re more likely to respond :)

  5. I have to agree with Marja that the belief that the general public still has access to these articles seems a lot like “privileged ignorance.”  First, once has to live near enough to a research library (public libraries may or may not have comparable resources, even through ILL) that a physical visit is even an option.  Second, in my experience, many (actually, in my small sample size, all) university libraries are closed to non-university students/faculty/staff.  Both of my alma maters (in OH and GA) required a university ID card swipe to get in the library door, and if you were lucky enough to have a sympathetic desk clerk wave you in, you still needed a university ID to sign in to any of the computers and the ID card to check anything out.  A last example, as a local resident here in SF – I work from home a few days a week and in an attempt to find a location to work that was neither my living room nor a coffeeshop I canvassed nearby college/university libraries – none would let me in.  I’m willing to believe that there are open-minded university libraries out there serving the general public, but claiming that the vast majority of them are doing so seems plainly inaccurate.

    1. I imagine that most university libraries are still open to the public – for reading the books and hard-copy journals, if not for accessing the databases. I have only rarely had trouble in this regard. But university libraries which are closed to the public are only one out of myriad barriers to access to research.

      – No local university libraries.

      – Any local university libraries are closed to the public.

      – Any local university libraries can’t afford the specific journals you need.

      – Any other university libraries are too far to travel.

      – The libraries or the computers may not be accessible to the handicapped.

      – The databases are hard-to-use without experience with other similar databases.

      – The interlibrary loan service isn’t advertised and often rejects loan requests.

      – Class, race, and sex.

      It can be simple to get around any one of these obstacles, but sometimes it can be impossible to get out of a cage of several of these obstacles.

  6. They don’t imprison the research.  That would imply that they’re just locking it up.  Instead, they’re selling it back to the people who created it.  That’s much more like kidnapping it and holding it for ransom.

  7. First, believe it or not, a lot of research is, surprise, NOT funded by you. This means that if you live in the United States that wonderful research paper you want to read may not be funded by an arm of the federal government, or your state, city, county, etc. Lots of research is funded by other countries, corporations, and various other sources of funding. If the EU paid for research, it is taxpayer funded, but I’m not one of the taxpayers, does that mean I have access to it? Even if it is paid for by the US taxpayer does that mean I should get it for free? I can’t wait to try that line the next time I drive over the George Washington Bridge and my EZ Pass takes another $9.50 from me.

    Yes, it’s selling me back my research. It’s also selling you some of my research, which was funded by the federal government (have you hugged your NSF program officer recently?). But it’s selling me that along with the research of a whole lot of other people. And y’know what? It’s a whole lot cheaper and easier than subscribing to all the journals and hoping that you don’t lose the copies of a journal with a really popular article.

    Believe it or not, JSTOR makes things better and the article is somewhat misleading. They make it sound like JSTOR is taking 65% of the expenses, when, in fact, it is JSTOR and other databases, such as Web of Science, IEEExplore, ACM DL, etc. JSTOR charges these fees because publishers charge them fees. Publishers charge large fees because they’re very narrow niche and insist on doing stupid things like mailing me paper copies of journals published in Singapore. There is also pressure on many untenured academics to become editors of journals because it looks good in their tenure file. This leads to a proliferation of journals, most of which are pretty crappy. And once a journal has a good article, the publishers see their opportunity to make a killing because now people start asking for the journal. Cha-ching!

    So what’s an academic to do? Start by refusing to review or publish in journals that have such silly policies (I’m looking at you SOPA supporting Elsevier) and support open access. Sign on to and let other people know. Lobby your professional organizations to fix it (c’mon IEEE, throw us a bone! Kudos to ACM for providing a mechanism for authors to link to their research for free from their home page). Run for officer in those organizations. Lobby your congresscritter to FUND a better solution.

    But above all, don’t take the stance that you’re entitled to it, because you probably aren’t. You can go to a university, yes, even many private universities (says this graduate of two private universities) and use their libraries to look up information. Yeah, it’s a little annoying, but it gets the job done. Also, Google Scholar and CiteSeer FTW!

  8. I work for a university publisher, and I do get how frustrating the pay wall is.  The system, without a doubt, is backwards and needs to be changed.  But blaming non-profit publishers and organizations like JSTOR, and making them out to be kidnappers, jailers, and thieves is just scapegoating and gets us nowhere.  

    There are for-profit publishers who exploit the system, no doubt.  And not-for-profit publishers don’t do enough to change the system, I’ll admit that too.  There are other factors that rarely get addressed by this kind of bashing, though.

    1.  The Academy – Scholars need to get published in order to get tenure.  In a competitive environment, the staid scholarly infrastructure won’t consider a published article worthy unless it’s published IN PRINT, and in a prestigious journal.  If the academy embraced digital publishing as a legitimate path to tenure, the publishing industry would look be a completely different place.  

    2.  Costs – Publishing costs money, even digital publishing.  Let’s just take out print publishing all together, and look at digital publishing.  It costs to build and maintain a platform.  It costs to promote the platform and the scholarship.  It costs to get your content noticed above the noise.  And as much as everyone thinks, universities aren’t paying for course release, editorial support, etc. like they used to.  Publishers and scholarly societies have to shoulder a lot of these burdens increasingly.    

    3.  Science Journal bias – It’s fine to say science journals can pay for digital only publishing in Open Access databases like PLoS One (where authors pay $1500 per article).  Most authors publishing in science get a grant that covers those costs.  Try getting such a grant if you’re writing about musicology or in the social sciences.  

    4.  Bashing the publishers – People assume publishers don’t provide any value, which is just not true, particularly with University Publishers.  When an editor needs funds to run the editorial office because their institution has cut their funding, we provide it to the extent that we can.  When an editor needs other assistance (e.g. copyediting, fact checking, typesetting, technical help), we provide it.  When an editor needs help filling their editorial board or to get peer reviewers, we reach out and help.  When a journal in an important field that’s less sexy to fund (i.e. the humanities) wants to start up, we will support them even if they operate at a significant loss for a long time.  We can do all these things because we charge for the content we provide.

    Scholarly publishing needs to change.  I believe Open Access is a good path for us to follow, but this type of critique does nothing to get us there.  Start a movement to change the academy.  Start or support a movement to better fund scholarly publishing, especially in the humanities and social sciences.  If you’re a part of a scholarly society with a journal, start a movement to have the society’s journal electronic only (and without demanding a lower membership fee).  The people who create this scholarship, curate this scholarship, and distribute this scholarship need support in order to do what they do. And JSTOR has current articles as well as archived articles now.

  9. I just want to throw a few comments out here…

    Primary, yes, people (and larger entities) have to pay for access to this information. And that is very, very sad.

    Secondary, if a single penny (or fraction of a penny) comes from anything other than a private grant, I should be able to see it.

    Tertiary, I get ill at the fact that so much money is raked in by simply having the information in the first place. It’s not like they did a damn thing! They just add index terms to find something someone else worked for.

    And finally, the double-ill feeling is that we have to PAY THEM TO HAVE THE DAMN INFORMATION IN THE FIRST PLACE.

    Think about that…

  10. As a librarian I want to point out two very important things about this. 

    1) JSTOR is a non-profit.  Of all the academic database companies they are nowhere near the worst.  An annual fee of $8500 is a drop in the bucket compared to the blood sucking price gouging of other academic journal database publishers, such as Elsevier.  Corporate subscription fees are exorbitant, and many universities have been struggling with this for years now.

    2) JSTOR just announced recently that they were going to be creating public access accounts for people who are unaffiliated with a university or college.  Free Access!  Sure, it’s not the most recent material, but for those people who are complaining about this dreaded paid content problem, well, hey, here you go. 

  11. JSTOR is hardly the worst, I agree, but the commercialization of scholarly publication is alarming.

    There’s a lot of unpaid labour that goes into academic publishing (all the writing, peer-reviewing, editorial board activities, student internships). There’s also a lot of upfront charges to publish in some journals and fields. Academics pour a lot of our time into making these journals work. We’re pouring even more of our money into supporting these journals through academic society memberships as well as institutional subscriptions to the databases that have cornered the market for accessing so many vital research publications.

    To have so much of this locked away behind commercially-mandated pay-walls? Maddening. Knowing that we’re enriching corporate entities with the lion’s share of our university’s library budget to then turn around and lobby our governments NOT to make tax-funded research results publicly available? It’s unconscionable.

Comments are closed.