Will JSTOR kill the web?

I don’t belong to any academic institution, so like most people I have no access to the electronic resources now becoming available unless they happen to be accessible from somewhere that I can visit. But today I had the chance to use JSTOR. It contained complete runs of mostly anglophone-centred journals. Frankly, after seeing it, I see no reason to ever scan another academic article myself.

Indeed it contained all the articles from Vigiliae Christianae from the 1950′s which I was myself refused permission to scan! Amusingly it discusses a time ‘wall’ after which articles won’t appear, so that it doesn’t interfere with publishers’ revenue streams — of about 10 years before the present! This makes ironic reading for those of us afflicted by the copyright law: only material 70+ years old may appear. But of course it is good that they have found a way around that. It also highlights that the material protected by copyright law really is nearly all commercially worthless.

Clearly this system must have a huge impact on how people access information, if you can access it. It’s accurate, it’s searchable, the articles can be exported to PDF, and it’s fast. I did searches on “Severus Sebokht” (who gets relatively few mentions on google) and came up with a mass of recent and not-so-recent scholarly articles about him.

There are still limitations. The coverage of French and German serials was negligible; but I think that this will change, such is the obvious benefit to all of the system. Likewise I think that access will be broadened as time goes by, probably as central institutions buy access for all colleges in a country or something like that. It was interesting to learn that all educational establishments in Africa will be given free access. But I don’t think that the general public will ever get access, and I think that the period of non-inclusion will remain or extend. This allows publishers to sell their CDROMs.

So what will be the impact on the web? Why would anyone use amateur sites, when this is available? Likewise, what is the point of Project Gutenberg, the CCEL, indeed my own collection, if instead the books can all be downloaded in PDF? Well, this last is not yet the case. But the success of the Early English Books Online project (likewise inaccessible to the public, but free to all educational institutions in the UK at least) which does just this for all English printed books to 1700 means that the writing must be on the wall. A project to do the books to 1900 must be in proposal somewhere already, I would imagine.

As these sorts of projects become more mature, I think that we will see more attempts by publishers to push sites like my own offline using copyright law, so as to bring the whole dissemination of data under commercial control again. After all, all these projects involve fees, payments, revenue streams. They have completeness, and state-funding, so they are far more desirable than some amateur site full of typos. The publishers profit, the average student doesn’t care. But the publisher has thus a financial interest to ensure that only the approved site is used.

One thing is for sure, in 10 years time the internet will be a very different beast for people with our interests. We may all be much better informed (if we belong to one of the favoured groups with access). But the “Wild west” days of the internet will be over.

4 Responses to “Will JSTOR kill the web?”


  1. Chris Weimer

    Hey Roger!

    I’m glad you like JSTOR. I use it all the time myself. There are some points I wanted to remark about, though.

    “It contained complete runs of mostly anglophone-centred journals. Frankly, after seeing it, I see no reason to ever scan another academic article myself.”

    I still want to scan articles – even those from JSTOR! All the articles from JSTOR are images, thus rather large, and those out of copyright can be placed for free on the internet where those with no access to JSTOR would not have to pay for it. JSTOR is great if you have a subscription, but I seriously doubt that very many without institutional access have a subscription. It’s just too costly.

    “So what will be the impact on the web? Why would anyone use amateur sites, when this is available? Likewise, what is the point of Project Gutenberg, the CCEL, indeed my own collection, if instead the books can all be downloaded in PDF?”

    I’m sure you’ve seen Rick Sumner’s and my idea – right? It’s a little different in function, but then again, it’s free. That’s the biggy – it’s FREE. Or will be. That is one of the biggest advantages an amateur site has over these institutional databases – general access to the public. Of course, it’s always great to have or know someone who has JSTOR etc… available, as an enhancer for one’s own projects.

    “As these sorts of projects become more mature, I think that we will see more attempts by publishers to push sites like my own offline using copyright law, so as to bring the whole dissemination of data under commercial control again.”

    I hope not! There are still those out there fighting against copyright laws. It’s great that there are professional sites out there too – it’s definitely a necessity, but it would be tragic if the pioneers are destroyed in the process. So far, we co-exist peacefully. It would be tragic to the entire scholarly world if such an event were to arise. It’s bad enough as it is…I can hardly imagine it getting worse…

    Spe,

    Chris Weimer

  2. Duane Smith

    I too am not affiliated with any institution and I use JSTOR all the time. I used it today. Nearly every major research library that I know of has a subscription. I am lucky that I live within a very few miles of such a library (Honnold/Mudd Library in Claremont, CA) and since I have a library card, I have access. This is sure a lot better than finding the journal in the stacks and then copying the article you want or sitting in the library taking notes. If I think I will need repeated access to a JSTOR article, I email it to myself.

    While I see a potential for conflict between services like JSTOR and folks like us, for now, I see JSTOR as a supplier rather than a competitor. And as a supplier, they are quite good. It is true that their store of French and German articles is very limited but I am sometimes surprised at what they do have. It was this failing to have a couple of non-English articles that required that I drive across the LA basin to UCLA today. At least in California, all state university libraries are open to the public and most have easy computer access to JSTOR.

  3. Chris Weimer

    Lucky you, Duane. But it shouldn’t bother me – I plan to stay in academics…

  4. Max Nelson

    You could add to the resources you cite the excellent ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) which is to include nearly 150,000 English titles originally published between 1701 and 1800.



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