Locked in the Ivory Tower: Why JSTOR Imprisons Academic Research

Universities have to pay thousands of dollars every year to read their own research. Blame the broken economics of academic publishing.

Universities have to pay thousands of dollars every year to read their own research online. Blame the broken economics of academic publishing.

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This morning, I searched for an article about autism on JSTOR, the online database of academic journals. I have a child on the autistic spectrum, and I like to be aware of the latest research on the topic. I could not access any of the first 200 articles that contained the word "autism." That's because, for the most part, only individuals with a college ID card can read academic journal articles.  Everyone else, including journalists, non-affiliated scholars, think tanks and curious individuals, must pay a substantial fee per article, if the articles are available at all.

I later found one article that was available for $38. I'm not sure why one twelve page article costs $38. It takes me about eight minutes to scan a twelve page article. The researcher receives no royalties. Why does it cost so much to read one article?

The answer lies in the antiquated system of academic publishing.


When an academic conducts research on, say, autism, the research often takes several years. That research is funded by national grants and subsidized through the university. The professor is given travel money and "release time" to conduct the research. Then the academic submits the paper to an academic journal.

Academic journals are housed at universities and are subsidized by the university, because it brings the university prestige. Academic journals are edited by faculty members. The faculty are given course release time to edit the journal and a small stipend. The university provides offices and work-study students to help with the secretarial work.

The editor reviews the manuscripts. If the paper isn't total rubbish, then it is sent to up to a handful of other faculty at other universities, who are experts on this topic. The reviewers provide content and writing commentary on the research. Their universities support their activities, because it increases the prestige of their institutions.

After the reviewers provide commentary, the journal editor forwards this feedback to the professor, who makes corrections. It is sent back to the journal editor who packages it up with other papers, writes an introduction, and then sends it to a for-profit publisher.

The publisher is key, because he needs money to print and distribute the journal for its tiny community of readers. To make that money, the publisher sells the rights to an academic search engine company, like JSTOR. For the publisher, this venture is highly profitable because, unlike traditional publishing, the publisher does not have to pay the writer or editor. It only has to cover the costs of typesetting, printing, and distribution.

Having bought the rights to the academic research, JSTOR digitizes the material and sells the content back to the university libraries. To recoup their costs of leasing the information from the publishers, the academic search engines use a subscription model to restrict the content to those who can pay the hefty price tag. A substantial part of the university library budget is devoted towards subscriptions to those databases. The UC San Diego Libraries report that 65% of their total budget goes towards getting access to JSTOR and other databases. To get access to the Arts and Sciences collection at JSTOR -- only one of the many databases and collections of information -- university libraries must pay a one time charge of $45,000 and then $8,500 every year after that.

Step back and think about this picture. Universities that created this academic content for free must pay to read it. Step back even further. 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. Newspapers and think tanks, which could help extend research into the public sphere, are denied free access to the material. Faculty members are rightly bitter that their years of work reaches an audience of a handful, while every year, 150 million attempts to read JSTOR content are denied every year.


How could we make this academic research more accessible to the public? The challenge is finding a way to get research on the web by bypassing the publisher/JSTOR nexus. If academic journals skipped that needless step of providing a print version of their journals, they could stop this cycle. They could simply upload the papers to a website and take the publishers out of the process.

In the age of Google Scholar, there is no need for independent academic search engines. Faculty could receive broader readership for their research. An online environment would provide more collaboration and faster publication times. University libraries would save vast sums of money. Curious individuals who want to know more about autism research would be able to have direct access to information.

Stubborn tradition keeps this cycle in motion.