JSTOR's Hidden Power

Training students to be attentive and discriminating in their use of sources is difficult and time-consuming. It is enormously tempting to say “just use Project Muse and JSTOR articles” and be done with it.

Few people outside of academia had heard of JSTOR, an aggregator and distributor of digital versions of academic journals, until a young activist named Aaron Swartz took his own life last January. Swartz downloaded, without proper authorization, a great many articles from JSTOR via MIT’s servers—as he had earlier downloaded and distributed millions of federal court documents in the PACER database—because he passionately believed that information should be as free as possible and as widely available as possible.

Because of Swartz’s particular commitments, and because his death brought so much attention to those commitments, much of the conversation about JSTOR and similar databases since he took his life has been about the value of open access to academic and other scholarly work. And open access is indeed something worth fighting for, and something to which databases like JSTOR—and Project Muse, and the Elsevier books and journals in the sciences, and several other major distributors—are necessarily opposed to. (See this recent contretemps for ample evidence of that opposition.)

But open access is not the only issue here, and if academics ever do manage to achieve an end-run around such distributors, they’ll have to confront some deeply entrenched habits of their own. In fact, those habits strengthen the cause of the distributors, and could make it much harder for open access to win the day.

Most academic journals get started at particular institutions, arising from the interests of a professor or two or three, but, while small numbers of people can edit such journals, the actual publication and distribution of them are more complicated. Eventually some academic presses came to specialize in such work—in America, Oxford University Press and Johns Hopkins University Press are probably the most prominent—and they provide multiple services to journal editors: They not only print and distribute, they also provide a kind of imprimatur, a seal of academic approval from well-regarded presses. To get your journal taken up by Oxford or Johns Hopkins is something of a coup.

It’s easy to see how these powers have been amplified in the digital age—and they’re powers that have had an enormous influence on how academic work gets done, from high-school students to the more elevated reaches of the professoriate. JSTOR (where the Oxford University Press journals, among many others, went) and Project Muse (which was created by Johns Hopkins University Press specifically for its journals) can make a very strong case for the value of their services to everyone in the academic ecosystem.

To the editors of journals, they say: We can get your articles—including long-forgotten ones, decades old—read and used by countless thousands of people who otherwise never would have heard of them.

To libraries, they say: You don't need to devote your staff’s limited time and energy to sifting through thousands of academic journals, trying to figure out which ones to buy access to. Just pay one fee to us—and perhaps to a couple of other equally prestigious services—and we’ll give your community instant access to thousands and thousands of peer-reviewed academic articles the quality of which we solemnly vouch for.

To students, they say: Figuring out what sources to use for your research paper is hard, isn’t it? You never know whether your professor is going to acknowledge a given source as reliable and appropriate, do you? Well, just search our database and use what you find there, and you’ll be good as gold.

And to faculty, they say: Students really have no idea how to evaluate sources, do they? And who has time to teach them? It’s not like you don't have enough to do already. So just point them to us, and they’ll be good as gold—and you’ll have one less thing to think about.

As a teacher, I can’t deny feeling the force of that last pitch. For the past few years I’ve been asking freshmen literature students to evaluate critical sources, on some work we’re reading in the class, of different kinds: books, print articles, online articles. I ask them to describe what they discover and to answer these key questions: Would you cite this source in a paper for class? Why or why not? The results of this assignment have been consistently, shall we say, sobering. (“You think that is a trustworthy source??”) Training students to be attentive and discriminating in their use of sources is difficult and time-consuming. It is enormously tempting to say “just use Project Muse and JSTOR articles” and be done with it.

But to do so is to evade a significant opportunity to teach students some things that they very much need to know. Years ago, in one of the first books to reckon seriously with the effects of the internet and digitization on education, James O’Donnell wrote that if in the past your professor served as the primary local source of knowledge in his or her special field, “the real roles of the professor in an information-rich world will be…to advise, guide, and encourage students wading through the deep waters of the information flood.” To turn over that task to Project Muse and JSTOR seems to me an abdication of a key teacher’s responsibility in our time. But our digital tools make that abdication very easy indeed.

And so, no matter how appealing the idea of open access is, and how consonant with the core values of academic life, it may run into obstacles other than the one usually cited, which is greed. Those who want to make money from academic publications may be less of a problem, in the long run, than academics who can't resist the temptation to offload some of what they think of as—and what may often be fairly described as—the drudgeries of teaching. Few of us are as committed to open access as Aaron Swartz was: We may say we don't like the power that has fallen into the hands of the big aggregators and distributors, but our behavior, when faced with the genuine services those companies provide, indicates something different. Are we willing to change that behavior, to take on greater responsibility for instructing our students in the quest for reliable sources and genuine knowledge?

Such a change is much easier for faculty members, like me, who teach relatively few classes with relatively few students, all of whom are well-prepared for academic work. For those with heavier teaching loads, and especially for adjuncts, who do much of the actual teaching in American universities and are likely to do still more in the future, it’s almost impossible not to employ whatever labor-saving devices they can find. Thus we see how many, and how intractable, are the structural impediments to serious education in America.

Again: Open access to academic work should happen. But while the big distributing services play a role in preventing it from happening, they don’t play the only role. Our desire—in many cases, need—to save time and effort also serves to keep this system running. But it needs to change, if our students are going to learn the skills they need to navigate “the deep waters of the information flood.”

Presented by

Alan Jacobs is Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the honors program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

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