I’ve written some posts in the past about vendors that have done some pretty slimy things in the name of making a profit. At least that makes sense to me. That’s their model — they’re profit-driven. Then there’s JSTOR. JSTOR is not an EBSCO or an Elsevier. JSTOR is a non-profit. JSTOR is a “service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive of over one thousand academic journals and other scholarly content.” While JSTOR has always been a bear to search, I have never thought of JSTOR as a company that would make decisions that were bad for users in the name of making money. But this new development has me scratching my head.

I’m sure anyone working in an academic library has already heard that the JSTOR interface was changing this summer. Well, how nice that they wait to finally make the change live the week that students are coming back to most schools. One of our librarians attended a webinar on the new interface and reported about it to the rest of the staff so we were pretty prepared for what was coming in terms of the interface change. But the thing that’s a really big deal is that JSTOR is now going to display everything in their collection by default. That probably doesn’t matter to a large University that subscribes to every JSTOR collection known to man, but for libraries of small to medium size that only subscribe to maybe 4 or fewer collections, your students will suddenly be seeing a lot of results in JSTOR that they can’t access. I did a search on World War II and Poland and out of the first 10 results there were only 2 that were in the JSTOR collections we subscribe to. If a student clicked on one of the eight of ten results that did not have a green check mark to the right of it they would see this:

Is this really the patron's only option?

What’s interesting is that we actually have many of these articles available in full-text through other databases.

I know what you’re probably thinking — “every database displays things that aren’t available in full-text. You can just enable your link resolver and students will be able to link to the full-text.” That would be nice, but JSTOR has decided not to make that possible. The response we got from tech support was “OpenURL links are not currently available when your users arrive at articles in collections that you do not license.” So, we can link out from full-text articles in JSTOR to versions of the same full-text in other collections, but we can’t link out from articles we do not have the full-text of in JSTOR to full-text in other collections. Either a lot of smart people don’t understand the purpose of OpenURL or they really don’t want to make it easy for students to figure out that their library has access to these resources through another database.

The other response we got was this: “At this time it is also not possible to change the default search to just your licensed collections.” Students can check a box on the Advanced Search page only that will “Include only content I can access”, but how many students are going to 1) notice that check box and 2) know what it really means? Especially when the default option (the box already checked) says “Include links to external content” and the explanation next to it says “JSTOR displays citation information and an outside link to the full-text of some recently published articles on external sites.” It makes it sound like students can get more full-text content that way when the reality is that they’ll just get more results that ask them to pay $12 or $30 for the article.

The tech support person went on to state “I will make sure that your suggestion of setting default search limits, and expanding OpenURL links to cover all non-licensed content, is passed on to our development team for consideration.” I have to call BS here. I can’t believe that these were not conscious decisions on their part. Was this developed by one lone dude in a shack with no input from other designers and librarians? I have to believe that they can’t be surprised that libraries would want these features.

I refuse to believe that all of the smart people at JSTOR have no idea how OpenURL works and have no idea how pretty much every other database vendor in the known world operates these days. Even if they were clueless, JSTOR has advisory boards made up of librarians who could tell them how things work. So my first thought was clearly they want to confuse students into paying for access to articles they could get through another database or ILL. But then I remember that this is JSTOR. They’re a not-for-profit. Something is clearly going on behind the scenes that we’re missing the boat on. And the first thing that pops into my head is PUBLISHERS. Are the pressures of publishers pulling out of JSTOR to pursue lucrative deals with EBSCO become to much? Did you have to make concessions that benefit your publishing partners but hurt the end user? I do understand that this change will make it easier for people not affiliated with a library to search JSTOR (helping to increase their base of individuals purchasing articles), but there is no reason that they couldn’t at the same time give libraries the ability to customize the default at their institutions or to make OpenURL work across the board.

So which one is it, JSTOR? Are you really that clueless about how modern databases and OpenURL link resolvers work? Are you out to make a buck off confused Freshmen with credit cards? Or did your publishing partners force you into it? Either way, you’re putting the customer dead last in this equation and, IMHO, breaking a trust relationship you’ve had with librarians for many years. I know that my solution to this will be simple. I just won’t teach JSTOR to social science majors here and will encourage students to use WorldCat Local. JSTOR articles are indexed in WC Local, so students can find the articles there and use Serials Solutions 360 Linker to link out to whichever database holds the full-text. Problem solved. And I doubt I’ll be the only librarian looking for a way around teaching JSTOR in information literacy classes if JSTOR doesn’t make a change ASAP. Way to make yourself less visible to future scholars, JSTOR!

I’ll be really curious to see how this shakes out, because I can’t imagine we’re the only library that’s going to be very negatively impacted by JSTOR’s bad decisions. I hope they make a change, and soon, because my History and Political Science info lit classes are coming in just a couple of weeks.

Update: For those who think that this is already resolved or have mentioned that you’re seeing a link resolver link to some articles, let me explain what you’re looking at as I’ve done a bit more digging. There are three types of results you can get right now in JSTOR, and you’ll see each in this screenshot (sorry for the size, my computer is being wonky — just click on it to expand it):

JSTOR results

JSTOR results

The first (with the gray asterisk) is from a journal that is not in a JSTOR collection we subscribe to. There will be no link resolver link that lets patrons easily get to the article in another database to to our library’s ILL form. Frequently, there will be something that tells the user they need to pay to access the article. Otherwise, it’ll just be a dead end.

The second (with the green check mark) is an article that is in our JSTOR collection. Students can click on the title and get to the full-text.

The third (with the yellow arrow) is from a journal this is in our JSTOR collection, but it is not from the date range of full-text that is available through JSTOR (in this case, the article is from 2006 and JSTOR’s coverage goes to 2005). Clicking on the title of this type of result will provide a link resolver link so that the patron can check to see if the library has this in full-text elsewhere.

For those who are seeing link resolver links right now, what you are seeing is the third type of link. You may just have too many JSTOR collections to easily get a result in the second category which is very lucky for you.