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.