Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Locked Out

Today a moment that I’ve been dreading finally arrived: I’ve lost all access to my university’s online research databases.

There was no announcement, no warning. I just went to log in and couldn’t. The place where I’ve spent huge volumes of time reading and analyzing hundreds of journal articles is now off limits to me.

If you’ve never been to grad school but graduated from college, you might remember doing some research via  JSTOR, ProQuest, Project Muse, EbscoHost, or WorldCat: massive online databases of mostly academic journal articles that often cannot be accessed through any other method without significant cost. When you’re affiliated with a university, access to these databases is “free” (your tuition pays for it, and your university pays a lot of money for it). Once you lose your affiliation, though, you lose your access.

For PhDs who’ve just graduated but remain on the job market (and thus temporarily unaffiliated with a university), the loss of that access is more than just an inconvenience. It might mean that you can’t access the articles you need to complete your dissertation, that you can’t keep up with the research you’ll surely be asked about in a job talk. It means you’re cut off, in more ways than one.

People have various ways of getting around this problem. The most obvious one is just to borrow someone else’s login ID, which is very common, even though universities can get in a lot of trouble for it. The other is to ask someone with a login ID to access certain materials for you. Neither of these options are really long-term solutions.

The question of why individual subscriptions aren’t even available to online databases like JSTOR isn’t easy to answer. Based on some basic research  and various news stories / rumors I’ve heard over the years, though, here are a few things I know (and if anyone has different information, please feel free to correct me):

1. Authors who publish in journals affiliated with JSTOR do not get paid. This despite the fact that an article published in a journal like the Journal of Japanese Studies could represent close to a year of research, writing, and revisions. You’re essentially paid in prestige–publishing in an important journal makes a big difference in career advancement.

2. My own university paid upwards of $2 million annually for subscriptions that included JSTOR, Project Muse, ProQuest, and several dozen other online databases.

3. You can pay for individual articles on JSTOR (some, not all), but the cost can be prohibitively expensive–sometimes as much as $30 per article. When you may need access to dozens of articles to write a single article of your own, the cost really adds up.

4. At present, JSTOR does not offer individual subscriptions to anyone. As in, even if you could afford the hefty fees (apparently around $50,000 a year), they won’t let you sign up if you’re not an institution or a publisher.

5. JSTOR describes itself as not-for-profit, which really makes me wonder where all that money is going. Yes, I realize that those articles don’t scan and upload themselves, but still, when you add up what JSTOR is being paid by thousands of institutions around the world, that’s a lot of money for a not-for-profit.

Let me be clear here: I am not making an argument that access to JSTOR and other online research databases should be free. I understand that there is human work involved in uploading and cataloging tens of thousands of articles. I would happily pay as much as $500 a year for access to JSTOR alone (though I’d prefer to also have access to Project Muse and ProQuest, the other two databases that I’ve used most often).

So why do I have to be cut off completely when I’m willing to pay? Given that the number of non-affiliated academics is growing, why does access to the scholarship that we need to do our research remain locked behind institutional walls?

I think part of the answer is the power that major journal publishers wield, and the knowledge that they can make a lot more money by limiting access to institutions. Academics are prisoners of prestige in this situation–they know that they need to publish in certain journals in order to survive, and thus they’ll look the other way when those journals and their online providers engage in decidedly shady behavior. Institutional libraries that try to negotiate with mega-publishers like Elsevier can have all their journal access cut off.

JSTOR recently decided to make a tiny fraction of its archive available to the public–articles published before 1923. It’s a nice gesture, but it’s useless to the majority of us who rely on JSTOR to keep up with the latest research in our fields. One respected Cambridge mathematician recently launched a boycott of Elsevier , which publishes more than 2600 journals. To date, more than 12,000 people who were clearly fed up with the academic publishing status quo have signed the boycott list.

My only hope is that as the number of unaffiliated academics continues to grow, JSTOR and other online databases will be forced to look at the possibility of individual access to their journals. We don’t want handouts, we just want affordable access to the materials we need to conduct our research.

Check out On The Media’s February 2012 story of the Elsevier boycott and Tim Gowers’ original blog post. You can add your name to the Elsevier boycott list here.

Finally, Anterotesis has a very helpful post on the economics of JSTOR here.


6 comments on “Locked Out

  1. toranosuke
    August 27, 2012

    This is a very serious issue, and I agree with you on it completely. And it’s not only temporarily unaffiliated grad students who are left in the lurch – people in research-heavy academic-related fields, such as museum curators, also rely on having access to JSTOR and the like, and yet often do not have such access, especially if they work for a smaller museum. It often makes me wonder how “independent curators,” people who essentially work freelance, manage to do their research.

    Though, that said, I am beginning to discover that there are institutions out there where access can be acquired relatively easily. For example, I am pretty sure that one can access JSTOR and a considerable number of other resources at the Metropolitan Museum’s library. It’s not nearly as convenient as having login access at home, of course, but if you happen to live in NY, that’s one place one can go – and a hell of a lot easier to get into than Columbia’s libraries. I wonder how many other institutions make it relatively easy for people to walk in and make use of such resources.

  2. gradland
    August 27, 2012

    Thanks Toranosuke–JSTOR does maintain a list of institutions worldwide that have access, but the website only says that “some of these institutions offer walk-in access.” The universities on that list definitely won’t let you access their databases without a login ID, but there are also a fair number of non-university institutions in Tokyo (the Japan Foundation, for one) that MIGHT offer access to people who aren’t affiliated with their institution. I guess it’s just a matter of calling different places individually and seeing if you can access the databases free or at least for a fee.

    The frustrating thing about that, of course, is that those places often have limited hours, and if you’re working full-time it can be pretty hard to get to their computers and have enough time to carefully read articles (since I’m fairly certain they won’t let you download or print anything).

  3. Vaidotas Zemlys
    August 27, 2012

    Well in the old days, people went to libraries and there they got pretty much everything they needed. If you did not get it, you were pretty sure, that nobody else did. Nowadays the system is broken. If you go to the library, you are restricted and anyone with normal access can run circles around you. My own solution is to search for preprints, or get a glimpse from the articles which cite the one I need. The most annoying thing is that usually I need some paragraph, or just a glance through the article to see if it is really useful.

  4. gradland
    August 28, 2012

    Vaidotas, yeah, this is the most frustrating, when all I need is a single paragraph or skim of an article but I can’t access any part of the article without paying for it.

  5. Anonymous
    August 28, 2012

    Have you heard about JSTOR’s “Register & Read” beta program? It’s certainly not a solution to the very real problem you discuss, but it does provide some limited access:

  6. gradland
    August 28, 2012

    Thanks for this–had heard rumblings of something like this program but this is the first I’ve seen of it. It looks like the list of available journals is pitifully small, but hopefully if enough people sign up for an account they’ll expand.

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Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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