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Despite New Program Promising Open Access, JSTOR Prices Remain a Concern

[The following article was originally published on Tadween Publishing's blog. For more information on the publishing world as it relates to pedagogy and knowledge production, follow Tadween Publishing on Facebook and Twitter.]   

After years of restricted access, JSTOR announced on January 9 that it will make the archives of more than 1,200 journals available to the public for free, giving those who sign up for an account with JSTOR the ability to read up to three articles every two weeks. 

JSTOR’s announcement that it will be opening up its archives to the public, albeit with limitations, is part of its new Register & Read program, which JSTOR describes as “a new, experimental program to offer free, read-online access to individual scholars and researchers.” Although subscribers can read up to three articles every two weeks, they will not be allowed to download or copy themAccording to Inside Higher Ed, 150,000 signed up for the trial period of the new program, and 30 percent of those who signed up used the program more than once. However, only 16 percent of those who registered are researchers, with the majority of others being students.

Most, if not all, researchers and university-level students are familiar with JSTOR. As a digital library of academic articles and books as well as primary sources, JSTOR is an essential portal for those conducting academic research. But access to JSTOR has been limited to libraries able to pay the hefty subscription fees, which could cost as much as $50,000 for a four-year institution (experiment with JSTOR’s price calculator by clicking here). Thus while access to JSTOR and other academic libraries is afforded to some university students, some university libraries are having to forgo their subscriptions due to budget cuts. Individuals have the ability to purchase articles without a subscription; however, the price range for articles variesdepending on which journal or publication they are being purchased from.

Laura McKenna has criticized these barriers to access in The Atlantic, stating that “the public—which has indirectly funded this research with federal and state taxes that support our higher education system—has virtually no access to this material, since neighborhood libraries cannot afford to pay those subscription costs.”

There is no doubt that running and hosting an archive of millions of journal articles from around the world requires money. But JSTOR articles can range in price from 10 to over 50 dollars, depending on where the publication is produced and what journal the article is coming from.

Do the costs of hosting and sharing articles online explain why JSTOR might price a short article at 50 dollars? Does such pricing mean that part of the money is going to the author? Not exactly.

Maria Bustillos explains for The Awl how the money paid to access JSTOR articles does not necessarily go to authors: “Another thing to consider is that academic writers are paid through salaries and grants; they aren't paid (not directly, anyway) for the publication of their work. The whole system of compensation for academic content is very different from commercial publishing. When you pay for a JSTOR article online, none of the money goes to the author, it goes to the publisher.”

In a 2011 article for The Atlantic, Julian Fisher gives a thorough breakdown of the reasons for JSTOR’s pricing and the pricing for other academic libraries. Even in the pre-internet age, Fisher explains, authors were not paid for the articles they wrote for publication in academic journals; instead their research was funded through grants or by their university (as Bustillos explained). The cost of physically printing articles in a journal is where the need for a price tag stems from.

Now that academic journals have largely shifted to the Internet, the cost of producing academic material has gone down, and putting an article online is much cheaper than printing it on paper. If the cost for producing academic journals and articles has dropped, then why do subscriptions to JSTOR and article purchases remain so high? Fisher explains, “Publishers keep doing what they do and the scholars do not complain much, since their subscriptions come through their grants or university libraries.”

Publishing prices have gone down, but individuals, students, researchers, and libraries continue to pay exorbitant prices for academic articles and subscriptions to online archives like JSTOR. JSTOR’s new Register & Read program presents a slight opening in the world of academic publishing, but the struggle for free access has not yet ended.

At the same time that JSTOR announces its new program, the digital library has found itself in the headlines following a controversy involving the untimely death of Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide on January 11 after being arrested for downloading millions of JSTOR articles from an MIT computer with the intention of making them available to the public (seeTadween’s blog post for our reflections on Swartz’s tragic death).

Tadween Publishing will continue to monitor events surrounding academic publishing and open access in the weeks to come. 

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