Journal Archives and the Future

JSTOR announced last week that they won’t continue to digitize Science, because “after a very productive association of nearly 10 years, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has decided to discontinue its relationship with JSTOR, effective December 31, 2007.” JSTOR customers will continue to have access to what has already been digitized (1880-2002), but the previously moving wall won’t move anymore. For many, perhaps most, academic libraries, JSTOR is a model of a dependable, space-saving, archive. I know a lot of libraries have moved their JSTOR-archived issues offsite or weeded them completely. I’m assuming this won’t be the norm for JSTOR journals, but what if?

This raises concerns for me about the future of digital archives. JSTOR has done a great job and now has an outstanding collection of journals in many areas, but unless the future lies with JSTOR-type projects and non-commercial digitization projects, scholars will eventually be the ones suffering. Any one particular journal is relatively unimportant, but it is still an example of an unfortunate development for academic libraries. Today Science, tomorrow everything else, and then we’re done for.

A related concern is the future of science journals in general. I have a feeling the AAAS will be coming out with their own backfile package like some other journals have done, and many libraries will subscribe. The AAAS isn’t commercial, but their move still bodes ill for libraries. Commercial science journal publishers seem to be under the impression they can do whatever they like and large academic libraries will just fork over more money to them. Given the difficulty libraries have had in resisting the large increases in STM serial prices in the last decade and the only moderate success of establishing non-commercial, open access, peer-reviewed journals that garner the same respect among publishing researchers as some of the most expensive commercial journals, it seems unlikely that libraries will be able or willing to resist more of this kind of thing in the future. And yet it should be obvious to everyone that the current science publishing model is probably unsustainable. Even if 100% of acquisitions budgets were dedicated to STM serials, eventually the price increases would outstrip the budget increases.

The current model of much academic research is just bizarre. Either university or public monies go to fund a lot of scientific research that is published in journals that the universities then have to subscribe to at often exorbitant rates that usually climb faster than the rate of inflation or library budget increases. In the case of public universities, the public funds the research, and then has to buy it back. I could never see how this benefits anyone but the journal publishers.

An article in the most recent C&RL examines a couple of arguments behind the open access movement. “Does Open Access Really Make Sense? A Closer Look at Chemistry, Economics, and Mathematics,” by John C. Navin and Jay Starratt, concludes: “The case made that public funded research needs to be fully accessible is, at least intuitively, one of the most satisfying arguments. Clearly there is considerable public funding supporting the research published in the journals we examined. Even in our lowest publicly supported field, economics, nearly one third of the published research articles acknowledged public funding.” (According to their results, 59% of chemistry articles, 31% or economics articles, and 59% of mathematics articles specifically acknowledge public funding.)

I’m obviously conflating a number of issues here, but only because they seemed connected to me. One journal pulling out of JSTOR is not a catastrophe, though we can certainly hope it’s not the wave of the future. And the AAAS isn’t a commercial publishing venture like Elsevier or Wiley. But the discontinuation of the relationship between JSTOR and the AAAS could very well be another symptom of a disease that will eventually kill library budgets.