Over on AcademicJournals I called Jstor "evil gatekeepers"

StephenGilbert takes issue :

It's not fair to characterize JSTOR as an "evil gatekeeper", as it is a non-profit organization that has been managing electronic journal archives since the Web was a baby. Now, Elsevier, on the other hand... – StephenGilbert

I didn't understand : I'm not sure I see the distinction. Anyone who puts up a site that allegedly contains a valuable document, but when I try to access it, tells me I can't, seems to fall on the evil side of the fence from my perspective. But I really don't understand the deal here, if they're non-profit. What's their role? What's their motivation? – PhilJones

To which Stephen explains :

Here's the thumbnail sketch. JSTOR started as a project to deal the problem of accessing old journals. It digitizes the complete backruns of academic journals and makes the database available to libraries. They started doing this at a time when many publishers offered no electronic access. The problem that you (and I) run into is that JSTOR does not actually have the copyright for any of the material they offer; they had to negotiate a license with the publishers, and most publishers aren't terribly interested in random people accessing their material. JSTOR did manage to arrange the license so that anyone can access the material if they are physically in a participating library, which is more access than I would have expected the publishers to give. I stumbled across a couple of old articles that give more details: [JSTOR: http://www.dlib.org/dlib/january97/01sully.html JSTOR: An IP Practitioner's Perspective], which details the IntellectualProperty perspective, and [JSTOR: http://www.dlib.org/dlib/july97/07guthrie.html JSTOR: From Project to Independent Organization], which examines JSTOR's effort to be self-sustaining.

The point is, you and I can't access JSTOR from home for a combination of three reasons:

  • The publishers want to maintain access control, and they own the copyright,
  • JSTOR has decided a subscription-based service is the most viable means of keeping the project running, and
  • JSTOR was born and continues to exist in the traditional academic environment, which views things in terms of institutions.

The result isn't very good for people like us who aren't currently affliated with an academic institution, but it's not fair to call JSTOR "evil". Misguided, maybe. Annoying, certainly (they seem [vaguely http://www.jstor.org/about/individual.html vaguely aware] that independent researchers would want to access the database, but offer no way for them to easily do so other than getting to the library of a participating institution, which isn't an option for many people). But really, for me this debate is less about JSTOR and more about Meatball:EvilIsEvil (I don't agree with the exact formulation on that page, but the gist of it is good). When you casually label a person or group as evil, you immediately shut down the possibility of meaningful discussion with that party. If someone from JSTOR stumbled across this page, I don't imagine they'd be particularly interested in addressing your concerns. "Evil" is generally a counter-productive label when a person is looking for solutions.


Fair enough. That was an unjust assertion. I don't do a lot of ad-hominem attacks on individuals, but I'm rather freer with them against organizations and companies. I offer my apologies to those in JStor trying to do their best in a bad situation. Still, I re-iterate my frustration that the whole situation of academic research, often produced in publicly funded institutions, being kept locked-up.

Let's blame the system, not the people and try to get it fixed.


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