Saturday, August 28, 2010

After some prodding, JSTOR does the right thing

Because I had been trying to keep a self-imposed ban on reading IHE/CHE as part of the positivity campaign, I'd missed the whole kerfuffle over JSTOR's new interface. Inside Higher Ed covers it well here and here.

Apparently what happened was that the new JSTOR interface, which includes its new current journals initiative, by default showed all materials, even those not covered in an institution's subscription. Oh, and instead of using OpenURL as Google Scholar does to show what's available at an institution, JSTOR provided a handy link to purchase the articles online for a handsome fee.

Quite understandably, this upset a lot of people, especially a lot of librarians, since students might be less likely to try another database (as faculty might) and might click on the pricey link instead.

JSTOR was shocked, SHOCKED to think that anyone believed they had done this for money:
"Did you have to make concessions that benefit your publishing partners but hurt the end user?”

“Absolutely not,” Guthrie, the JSTOR founder, told Inside Higher Ed on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re absolutely not trying to have users purchase articles they already have access to.”
To JSTOR's credit, the interface has been fixed so that you can opt to see only materials at your institution, and some OpenURL features have been implemented. JSTOR wants to be a web portal, in some ways, so that students will look there first for content instead of the MLA Bibliography. I get what they're trying to do.

But I'm glad that IHE and the librarians called JSTOR out on this, just as Facebook users have called out Facebook every time it introduces a new "feature" to decrease privacy and monetize users' personal information. It seems to me this is part of a larger trend where customers are pushing back when trusted, or formerly trusted, institutions are capitalizing on users' trust to make more profits. At the post office, for example, you have to decline all the expensive options and extras one by one, repeating "media mail, please" until the person behind the counter gives up and stops trying to sell you next-day delivery.

In these times, it's probably inevitable that institutions, even those that profess a noble mission, will use whatever means they can to make whatever money they can. Maybe that's why students need us to teach them critical thinking about all the alternatives, not only in the matter of databases but in other consumer-driven decisions as well.


Anonymous said...

Well, the budget cuts have meant our library no longer offers access to JSTOR (and to much else). I'm afraid to look at it or to investigate, although I'll have to. I suspect the next research library over may keep some databases. $20 in gas, $10 lunch, and $10 parking it costs for a day over there, and I'm not sure about printing privileges for those of us who aren't denizens of that university. So HMMMM I may start hitting that BUY button in JSTOR and I hate to think of this.

michele said...

You make a good point about teaching our students critical thinking about their consumer choices and it seems like this kind of issue with JSTOR together with Facebook are some really good ways to get them to think about how we don't just live in an ivory tower here and these things have very real consequences in the outside world.

When I used to teach computer science majors (almost exclusively), I could get them to see relevance by talking about open source software in opposition to the increasingly expensive proprietary software packages offered by the big companies. But this database example could work wonderfully with literature and writing classes doing research.

Thanks. It's certainly gotten me thinking about the possibilities.

Maggie said...

You have helped me crystallize my thinking about why I hate dealing with salespeople and therefore, why I hate the whole "shop local" movement. I would much rather do things online than have to deal with a person trying to upsell me something. It is stupid and icky when they do it on the internet too. I already *know* our campus library doesn't have most of the resources I need, so I just ILL most things anyway.

Anonymous said...

I didn't even know that one could send something media mail still because I fell for the other options first. Thank you for mentioning that.

Re: JSTOR, how greedy. Tsk tsk.

Tom Matrullo said...

It is extraordinary to think that some libraries that once committed to JSTOR, purged their journal collections, used the physical space for other purposes, are now dropping JSTOR due to budget cuts. Are these moves made openly and with the consensus of faculty and students? Any way of knowing how widespread this is? This isn't like some other business or outsourcing situation -- it is unique. Once a collection of physical journals is in the landfill, there's no going back. Some background here

Anonymous said...

Fascinating comment and link, Tom.

Is it done openly? Semi openly. We're fighting the JSTOR thing now and might win, although it's a bit overshadowed by the fact that they're also trying to semi abolish tenure and there's also a big fight about that.

HOWEVER, what always amazes me is that most faculty and students seem to drink the kool aid. Only a few cranks like me said the physical journals shouldn't go to the landfill. I remember making a SPEECH about the moment when we might lose databases due to budget cuts. I was not believed. People went for the idea of e-books over physical books for the same reason.


There is also a lot said about how ILL solves all problems -- things that people who really use the library as a humanist does would never say.

1. ILL fills in gaps and gets you rare items, sure, but you can't browse in journal issues if you just got one xeroxed article from a journal from ILL.

2. ILL is good for rare items, but if you try to get a frequently used item through ILL it will be difficult, since it will be out and with a waiting list at its home university. ILL is no substitute for an actual research collection of one's own.

3. ILL costs money, at least at Louisiana universities. It is one of the contributing factors to my living above my means. If you want your students to learn to use the library, you cannot recommend that they "just ILL" everything.


Maggie -- I'm glad I'm not the only one who can't stand dealing with salespeople. They drive me around the bend, truly.

Tom Matrullo said...

Interesting. One scenario: If this trend continues, not only will students and researchers lose, but so will JSTOR. Its economic model, which I and others have said is unworkable as well as inequitable, may be hitting the wall. Universities should en masse demand a revamping of JSTOR and its fees lest students end up investing in university education at institutions whose entire journal access suddenly vanishes.

undine said...

Profacero, hitting the BUY button will add up for sure: it's $14 a pop, even for a 2-page article. I've done that with other databases when I've been desperate for something. Some of the Cambridge journals charge even more--about $35 per article, I think.

Michele, I like your analogy to open-source software. My classes already have to endure a short rant from me about this every semester, but I think it's worth it if they learn that there are alternatives. See, they trust the interface (JSTOR or whatever), and that's a mistake.

Maggie, I hate that part of shopping, too. I hate bargaining, and I hate the idea that every transaction, even going to the post office, is now like buying a car. I've heard that you can get good deals on major appliances by haggling, but I can't do it. I just go in when there's a sale and hope they don't see the SUCKER sign attached to my forehead.

Ink--it's true! I read on Consumerist or somewhere that they're now forcing the Post Office employees to do that whole high-price first rundown, and they really won't tell you the cheapest price unless you persist. The other day, I had to say "media mail--cheapest way, please" seven times (I counted) before I could get them to tell me the price of it.

undine said...

Tom, that is exactly what I've feared (that libraries would pulp the paper versions and then drop JSTOR), and in fact I've seen that happen with some of the older databases. Once the journals are gone, JSTOR will have us where they want us, as if it doesn't already. The other problem is something you see with UMI microfilms of periodicals. Either they cut off the advertisements, or articles are cut off, but as far as UMI is concerned, too bad--that's the official record, now that the physical object doesn't exist any more. I know he made a lot of librarians furious, but Nicholson Baker was right on this one.

undine said...

profacero, I agree on both counts. ILL can be slow, and it's expensive: it apparently costs a university $20 and up to borrow a book, when if they'd just bought the book to begin with, it would have cost them maybe $20 in paperback.

The other thing about a physical journal is that you can see what surrounds the article and skim it more easily. My computer's kind of slow, so to look at the other articles goes like this: click on link, watch Vista circle spin for a while, see text. Try to page down, watch Vista circle spin for a while, see text. Repeat for each article I want to skim. I can look at this MUCH faster in paper.

undine said...

P. S. And Tom, thanks for that link; it was interesting reading.

Anonymous said...

Here, the cost of ILL is paid by the user. Therefore it is often cheaper just to buy the book -- unless you want to spend gas money and drive time to where you can look at in person without buying, which can be an option, too.