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Can costly academic indexes be fixed?
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  • January 28, 2012
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jstor_logo_large-249x300I ran across an interesting pair of articles concerning academic journal indexes—a complaint about the journals’ expense and inaccessibility by Laura McKenna in The Atlantic, and a rebuttal pointing out a number of errors and misconceptions in McKenna’s article by Nancy Sims of the University of Minnesota Libraries on her blog.

At the heart of McKenna’s complaint is the often outlandish pricing for individual articles found on some of these journals, such as JSTOR. She brings up the example of a charge of $38 for a 12-page article. McKenna posts an explanation for this state of affairs that involves publishers selling rights to academic articles to index services, which then sell the articles themselves back to universities. Sims points out this is an oversimplification, and that McKenna is imputing for-profit status to some entities that are actually non-profits.

McKenna concludes:

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.

Sims responds:

I think I’ve pretty much fully addressed the misconception of a “publisher/JSTOR nexus”, but wanted to point out that continuing to provide print access is not the thing that’s hanging up this dysfunctional cycle. Online-only access carries plenty of costs of its own. The non-profit open access publisher PLoS charges a publication fee of couple thousand dollars an article to underwrite only some of their costs. Many institutions or grants underwrite open access publishing fees or even whole open access publications, though. In the long-run, the costs are much lower to institutions than when subsidizing commercial profits.

Sims points out that, while JSTOR does have some problems, it is actually one of the better elements of the current academic publishing landscape. There is room for improvement overall, and there are many people already trying to reform the system. But the academic publishing system is not as simple as it looks, and complicated systems take time and effort to change.

I wonder just how much of this stems from people accustomed to the ease of finding things on the Internet being exposed to the less user-friendly nature of academic indexes? I was using indexes well before the World Wide Web, thanks to the systems at my local college library, and they took some getting used to. Many of them didn’t store text at all, but just told what issue of a magazine the article you wanted was in, and then you had to go to microfilm to find the actual citation.

Now the Internet has become a lot easier to find stuff you want (thanks in no small part to Google), but indexes have stayed about the same. Perhaps when people are used to getting stuff fast and free, costly and tricky-to-navigate systems seem that much more offensive. (This might also be why most paywall implementations run into trouble.)

Regardless, I’m sure that sooner or later the net’s simplifying influences will reach into academic publishing as well. It’s just a matter of time.

(Found via BoingBoing.)

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