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.