JSTOR announces free limited reading access to its journal archive

I am an academic librarian at a small liberal arts college. I am committed, within the confines of a finite library budget, to provide access to the most relevant, highest quality information resources (journals, books, and media) possible for our students and faculty. One important component of this access commitment are the 11 Arts & Sciences collections and 1 Life Science collection (over 1,600 titles) we subscribe to on the JSTOR full text journal archive platform.

JSTOR is a valuable and cost effective resource in our online information mix. JSTOR uniquely features Volume 1, Issue 1 full text coverage to most titles, which then move forward in time, embargoing (most commonly) the latest 3-5 years of coverage so as not to jeopardize publisher revenue through current subscriptions. Disciplines that require access to current content may find this embargo model unacceptable. But for many disciplines in the humanities, for example, where research retains greater informational “shelf life,” the delay doesn’t make these resources less useful. Indeed, a journal archive like this can be especially valuable for historical or diachronic research.

It still amazes me that as a small college library we are able to provide access to a resource like JSTOR for our users. Indeed, I often reflect on the information-rich environment that characterizes our library generally, even with a constrained resource budget. But I also often lament how our students will lose access to this wealth of information when they graduate and enter into their vocations. We encourage our students to commit themselves to “life-long learning” following graduation, but we have to assume that others will provide access to the needed information resources. Licensing agreements expressly prohibit us from providing it.

This is another reason why I am an advocate for open access to scholarly research. Access to information and knowledge shouldn’t be limited to an academic “hot house” environment any more than access to that same information and knowledge should be limited by paywalls within the academic environment. This is a work in progress. While still a significant distance from offering open access, I was interested to read last week that JSTOR has begun to take some steps toward opening access to its journal archive to individuals who would otherwise lose access upon graduation, or who never had access through a participating institution to begin with.

In a press release dated January 9, 2013, JSTOR announced that following a successful 10-month test, it is now expanding an experiment called Register & Read, which will give anyone who signs up for a JSTOR account free online reading access to up to three articles every two weeks in over 1,200 journals (Excel) “from nearly 800 scholarly societies, university presses, and academic publishers” in the JSTOR archive. Affiliation with an academic institution is not required.

“Our goal is for everyone around the world to be able to use the content we have put online and are preserving,” said Laura Brown, JSTOR managing director. “Register & Read provides a virtual way for anyone to walk into the JSTOR library, register at the door, and ‘check out’ a limited number of articles for reading.” (from the press release)

Register & Read follows another JSTOR initiative launched in September 2011 called Early Journal Content (mentioned earlier on my blog here), which opened public domain journal article content (published before 1923 in the United States and before 1870 in other countries) in the JSTOR archive to anyone, regardless of institutional affiliation, and no registration is required. Indeed, any user can freely search on JSTOR for citations and article previews. [JSTOR also recently announced the Access for Alumni program, where institutions can pay an additional percentage of their annual archival collection access fees to provide access for their alumni.]

A test drive of Register & Read

I conducted a number of searches in JSTOR without logging in with my institution credentials so I could see how this process worked.

JSTOR search results

Search result (3) is entirely free to access because it is an article in the public domain (from June 1888) and part of JSTOR’s Early Journal Content program. Notice though that result (2) is marked with an “X” to indicate that I do not have normal access to this article. However, if I proceed to click on the record link I am taken to the article page that includes citation information and an article preview, over which is this banner:

The banner indicates that the article is available for me to read online for free (this article is from a journal that is part of the Register & Read archive collection). When I click the “Read Online” button I am prompted to register or login with a MyJSTOR account:

I clicked the “Register” button and was directed to a sign up form for a MyJSTOR account. I don’t recall whether this form is different than the one I would have encountered earlier as an institution-affiliated user to enable management of saved searches and citations. However, I noted the required fields that ask for my name, email address, institutional affiliation (if any), position, and area of study.

Clearly, the trade-off for being granted limited free reading access to articles is granting JSTOR and its publishing partners access to my use activity on the platform. I confess this takes some of the shine off for me—both as a librarian who is committed to protecting user privacy, and as an open access advocate who winces at the strings being attached to this idea of “free.” In fairness, I see this kind of personal information request on other aggregator platforms. I suspect the drive for this comes from the publishers that are anxious for any leverage to sustain or improve their current economic positions. Like so many free online services, users will have to decide whether the value they derive is worth the cost. JSTOR has a user Privacy Policy.

In addition to online reading, Register & Read in many cases provides users with the option of purchasing accessed articles for downloading and printing, or they can be stored in the user’s MyJSTOR account. When I click the “Download” button I am prompted with purchase options. Notice that I am here also given the option of purchasing the entire journal issue:

Register & Read is rolled into the infrastructure that has enabled unaffiliated persons to purchase individual articles off the platform for a number of years now. The price of the article is set by the publisher. JSTOR gets a cut for providing the delivery platform.

Impressions: Good start, but rationing reinforces notion of knowledge scarcity

There is no question that I am spoiled by our institutional access to JSTOR, and this inevitably colors my impressions of Register & Read. I love JSTOR. But my first thought after reading about this initiative was: “Three articles every two weeks? Really?!” What strategy would I need to devise to ration my access if I was more than a casual reading visitor to JSTOR?

I’m sure they ran the numbers after the pilot to arrive at this figure. I’m also sure they engaged in a Herculean effort to get buy-in from all the publishers that agreed to join the program. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. It’s a start. Maybe it’s not the number of articles so much as the access timeframe that feels particularly tight-fisted. Research activity is not evenly spaced in time like this. If I’m doing research or working on a writing project I need access to many sources in relatively short spurts of time. Three articles every two weeks translates into 78 articles a year, 39 articles every 6 months, or 20 (rounding-up from 19.5) articles every quarter. What if JSTOR gave me the option of accessing up to 20 articles every three months to use as I needed? That would have an entirely different feel about it—more generous. It would make the Register & Read service significantly more useful to independent scholars.

I don’t see Register & Read as a form of open access, though I grant it is a step toward the opening of access. I don’t think it would be better if JSTOR were entirely closed. The ability to search the platform like a bibliographic index is itself a valuable feature, as is access to its public domain Early Journal Content. Paradoxically, though, doling-out this little bit of access behind a tracking login seems to more strongly reinforce the notion that knowledge is a scarce commodity whose value must be closely guarded and monetized at every turn. I think JSTOR can do better.

Religion, Biblical Studies and related journals in the Register & Read titles list

I scanned the current Register & Read titles list (Excel) for journals that would be of interest to persons studying religion, biblical studies, or related disciplines. I may have missed a few, but I picked out the following:

American Journal of Theology & Philosophy
The Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research
Archives de sciences sociales des religions
Buddhist-Christian Studies
The Catholic Historical Review
Die Welt des Islams
El Ciervo
European Judaism
The Furrow
Hebrew Studies
History of Religions
The Irish Church Quarterly
Japanese Journal of Religious Studies
Jewish Historical Studies
The Jewish Quarterly Review
Jewish Studies Quarterly
Journal of Biblical Literature
Journal of Cuneiform Studies
Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion
Journal of Law and Religion
Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures
Journal of Moravian History
Journal of Near Eastern Studies
Journal of Qur’anic Studies
The Journal of Religion
Journal of Religion in Africa
The Journal of Religious Ethics
Journal of the American Oriental Society
Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues
Near Eastern Archaeology
Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions
Novum Testamentum
Philosophy East and West
Religion & Literature
Review of Religious Research
Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal
Studia Islamica
The Torah U-Madda Journal
U.S. Catholic Historian
Vetus Testamentum
Vigiliae Christianae

Posted in Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Open Access, Publishing Platforms, Scholarly Associations, Scholarly Journals
4 comments on “JSTOR announces free limited reading access to its journal archive
  1. […] JSTOR announced on Jan. 9th that the public can read 3 articles for free every two weeks if they sign up for an […]

  2. Comments on JSTOR’s Register and Reading and Early Content:

    Register and Read and similar programs raise for me huge privacy flags. Libraries have gone to considerable efforts to ensure that the searching and reading behaviour of individual scholars is NOT tracked.

    Register and Read looks more like a sales tactic for JSTOR’s pay-per-view than a sincere attempt to move towards open access or expanded access. Researchers can access a few articles, but if they want to be able to keep them on their hard drives and make full use of access under Register and Read, they must purchase a copy. In other words, it’s only free if it’s not all that useful, or the number of real free articles online is actually much, much smaller than what JSTOR portrays.

    Open access is literature that is digital, online, free of charge and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions (Suber, Overview). Register and Read does not remotely meet this definition.

    Kudos to JSTOR for releasing public domain content on September 6, 2011 (not long after Aaron Swartz downloaded JSTOR content).

    Suggestions for improvement:

    Link to the early journal content from the JSTOR main page – where it is, it is not easy to find.

    Work with journals to provide free access to back issues. The journals participating in Highwire Free are a good model. A large portion provide free access to back issues, often after one year:

    As for Register and Read, I would suggest ignoring JSTOR altogether. Get in touch with the authors of articles you wish to read and ask them to put them in their institutional repository – the amount of work this would take wouldn’t be much different, but there would be a world of difference in the results. JSTOR Register & Read gets you limited access to an article, just for you; if the author puts the article in their IR for open access, it is freely available to anyone, anywhere.


    Heather Morrison, PhD
    The Imaginary Journal of Poetic Economics

  3. […] JSTOR announced on Jan. 9th that the public can read 3 articles for free every two weeks if they sign up for an […]

  4. […] took his life.  Of course there’s free access and there’s free access, in this case as Gary Daught points out in an excellent piece beyond the need to register, there are of course privacy concerns over your reading habits being […]

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