An interesting experiment

The announcement from JSTOR of their new “Register & Read” program, reported here in Inside Higher Ed and here in The Chronicle of Higher Education, seems like a promising experiment.  It deserves both praise and a couple of caveats, I think.

The first caveat is that it may be a rather small experiment; only 5 of the 50 University of Chicago Press journals, for example, will be available through Register & Read.  The success of the experiment in teaching JSTOR about its potential readership that does not have subscription access may be limited if the size of the sample available is too small, or if the disciplinary focus of what can be read is not broad.

The second important caveat is that this is not an experiment in open access.  Allowing unsubscribed readers “read only” access to three articles from a limited archive every two weeks is nice, and addresses one aspect of the overall access problem.  But it leaves a great deal of that problem untouched.

For example, the Inside Higher Ed piece mentions Aaaron Swartz and his apparent attempt to hack JSTOR and download millions of articles.  Some have claimed that Swartz was attempting to collect these articles for “non-consumptive” text-mining research.  I have no idea if that is true or not, and I disapprove of his methods even if it is.  But the access JSTOR will permit through Register & Read does not begin to address the opportunity for cross-journal research into the characteristics of scholarly output that text-mining offers.  It does not even meet real research needs for academics at under-resourced institutions, since the scope and number of articles is so limited.  At best, and it is a step in the right direction, this program will support one-off research needs and “curiosity” reading.

Nevertheless, there are several things to like about this program.  Most important from my point of view is the recognition it implies of the unexpected reader.  Too many publishers and database vendors have denied for years that there is an access problem at all; that there are readers out there who would like to read articles in JSTOR and elsewhere but cannot do so because they are not affiliated with a subscribing institution.  One can just read the AAP’s recent statement of support for the Research Works Act to find such a fantastical denial.  JSTOR, however, is implicitly acknowledging those potential readers with this new program.  In fact, the Inside High Ed article actually makes reference to the “droves of unlikely visitors” directed to databases like JSTOR by Web search engines.  They are certainly out there, their presence supports most of the strongest arguments for open access, and it is good to see JSTOR acknowledge them.

More than simply acknowledging these unexpected, unsubscribed readers, JSTOR wants to know who they are.  That is the point of registering before one can read under this new program.  JSTOR will collect data to see if individual subscriptions or, one hopes, reasonably priced purchases of individual articles, are possible.  It seems to me that a key element for the future survival of the traditional publishing industry is finding realistic price points for these services; the $39.95 charge that we often encounter today is simply wishful thinking, perhaps intended by publishers to convince themselves that individual sales are impractical more than to actually open that market.  If JSTOR can gather data that will undercut this willful blindness and really begin a discussion of practical access for individuals or non-subscribing institutions, that would be welcome.

I have to note that a colleague suggested to me last week that registration might be a barrier for many people.  For myself, I hope potential users will not see it that way.  The information JSTOR will apparently seek is relatively modest I think, at least compared to what Apple and Amazon and Netflix already know about me!  And JSTOR has been a rather trustworthy partner over time for academic libraries.  What’s more, helping them learn exactly who the folks are that they are currently not serving can have very beneficial consequences.  So even though this is a very modest experiment in access for the under-resourced, I hope individuals will use it and help JSTOR better understand their future business models.

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