You Can Now Pay for Access to JSTOR’s Trove of Scholarly Articles

And it quietly changes the importance of academic societies.
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From within a university, scholarly research seems easy to access. Go to Google Scholar, or search a library website, and it’s there.

From outside a university, scholarly research seems impossible, if not expensive, to get to. Papers may cost hundreds of dollars if they’re not impossible to download. 

An announcement yesterday from the scholarly publishing giant JSTOR alters that situation, somewhat. On Tuesday, JSTOR announced JPASS, a subscription service which allows individual users or groups to pay for access to 1,500 of JSTOR’s journals. According to a news release, the costs “range from $19.50 for a monthly to $199.”

The collection of articles JPASS users can access isn’t as large as the entire JSTOR library. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, JPASS users “generally” won’t be able to look at journal articles published in the past three to five years. And while JPASS users can look at any article in the available library, they can only download 10 articles per month or, at most, 120 per year.

Three to five years, though: That’s a much larger embargo than exists in most open-access agreements. The open-access policy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), for instance, mandates a maximum embargo of 12 months: After a year, all research published by the NIH is available to the public, free. Embargoes like this are meant to preserve the exclusivity of new scientific research, though some academic research indicates that even a 12-month embargo may overshoot the time such “new” research is important.

JPASS isn’t open-access — it’s not free. It’s part of a larger trend to liberate, or liberate in part, scholarly research. That trend does include open-access agreements at NIH and at the University of California, but it also encompasses Register and Read, another JSTOR initiative to allow registered users to read some articles free, is part of the same spectrum. It’s even of a piece with open data movements, which look to free the raw information civic workers collect.

Where JPASS is interesting — and what makes it unlike other open-access initiatives — is how it changes the relationships both individuals and groups have to scholarly publishing. Individuals can now buy their way into JSTOR: something not really previously possible. To get to JSTOR, you usually had to be part of a library or university community; now, people can access — and even support — JSTOR on their own.

And that changes how JSTOR might work for groups, too. The service is discounting JPASS feeds for scholarly societies whose publications are included in the JPASS archive. “There really doesn’t need to be any such thing as an unaffiliated scholar,” James R. Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told the Chronicle. Grossman sees a future where scholars gain access to databases through their scholarly societies, not through some university affiliation. 

JPASS doesn’t promise the same radically liberated future that open-access does. But it does suggest changes in academia which may be stickier, and more radical: The possibility of empowered scholars and scholarly societies, apart from universities, buying their way to access. 

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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