Aaron Swartz was arrested a few days ago for the unauthorized bulk downloading of files from JSTOR, the academic journal archive. According to the indictment [pdf] , he faces up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. Alongside charges of “unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer”, said indictment also makes outlandish claims of wire-fraud; the hyperbole is further ramped up by the Department of Justice’s Press Release [pdf]. Oddly, JSTOR have put out a statement saying they did not want to prosecute Swartz.
At the moment, there’s more heat than light in the commentary around this case. We don’t know what Swartz intended to do with the documents he downloaded, nor why he obtained them the way he did. He has a strong track record for opening up information and analysing it: witness his liberation of court records, and his analysis of funding academic writing. But this case led me to think about JSTOR, what it claims to do, and the way it acts as a gatekeeper of academic knowledge.
When you visit the JSTOR about page, you are greeted with the statement:
JSTOR is a not–for–profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive of over one thousand academic journals and other scholarly content. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship.
Sounds good! Who could possibly have anything against a not-for-profit helping spread knowledge? Well, if you don’t have an institutional affiliation, if you’re one of the general public, reading the journals is an expensive business. There is no option to subscribe to the archive as a whole, and the pricing of individual articles is astronomical.
(Academics and students generally have access to these archives through their institutions; for them it’s seemingly free, but the University is paying. How much I don’t know, although an indication can be had from JSTORs price calculator. According to AP, “Its annual subscription fees can cost a large research university as much as $50,000.”)
Take, for example, the journal 19th Century Music. A single issue from the publishers costs $18 for an individual, a subscription for 3 issues $50 (discounted to $28 for students and the retired). The latest issue has 6 full articles, as well as various supporting material. On JSTOR, each article is priced at $12. That’s $72 for the substantive content of just one issue. JSTOR are even charging $12 for the two page preface. This is by no means exceptional: another University of California publication The Public Historian – oh the irony – is $17 for a single issue direct, but $12 an article on JSTOR, again even for two page editorials. Or again, a standard individual subscription to Radical Teacher is $24 – $28; a single article is $18 at JSTOR, even just for the front matter. One more time: $14 for an article from the American Historical Review when joining the AHA starts from $40 and gets you the journal plus many other benefits.
As far as I can tell, these prices are around the average but some are much higher. Rogers’ article on the Black Act, published in the Historical Journal in 1974, is $34, which is $4 more than even Cambridge U.P.’s own inflated price.
Some articles are being sold even though they have been legitimately released for free. For example, A Descriptive and Phylogenetic Analysis of Plumulaceous Feather Characters in Charadriiformes is available from JSTOR for $15 but can be obtained for free at the Searchable Ornithological Research Archive. Other material, like Law and History Review, doesn’t seem to be accessible at all to the public, yet there is no indication that the volumes for 1999 to 2009 are archived for free at the History Co-operative. This is not aiding the discovery and use of scholarly content.
Then there is the murky area of those materials that are out of copyright. The William and Mary Quarterly from 1899? $9 an article. Likewise, it’s $14 for a single article from the Journal of Political Economy for 1892. This may be the fault of the publishers rather than JSTOR, but it points to a relationship between the two that excludes academic and public interests. This also raises the question of publicly-funded research being mined for profit by private institutions, as pointed out by Glyn Moody.
It is not just a case that JSTOR is charging too high a price, whether in relation to other vendors, with comparable products or the pockets of those who would like to read this material. In economic terms, they could increase sales and revenue by lowering the price to hit that sweet spot where they maximise returns. My feeling is that they are deliberately trying to put the public off, restricting access through their pricing mechanism.
I also have the feeling that charging these prices is directly contradictory to their status as a non-profit. I have found nothing on their website explaining how they price materials, or how they work with publishers. I find it extremely unlikely that they have absolutely no say in the prices they charge individuals for individual articles. Nor is there any information on how much revenue goes to the publishers. (It’s well-known that the authors don’t get paid through the current academic journal system.) Furthermore, I have found no financial information as to JSTORs revenues or outgoings, or whether it has, as a non-profit, tax-exempt status; nor have I found any information for Ithaka, with which JSTOR merged in 2009. Accountancy is not one of my skills, but I feel such information should be easily accessible on the website of a non-profit. This lack of transparency and openness I find disturbing.
JSTOR is not living up to its declaration. It is obstructing the dissemination of scholarly, publicly-funded and public domain writing. It clearly has a commercial aspect, yet is shy of stating this. I can’t even be sure it is a not-for-profit in any meaningful, legal sense. It is a contributor to, not a solution for, the crisis in academic publishing.
You can support Aaron Swartz via DemandProgress.org.
UPDATE: The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society freed from JSTOR and the Royal Society, bittorrent at Pirate Bay!