The arrest of Aaron Swartz recently for downloading 4.5 million articles from JSTOR has revived discussions about whether online full text subscription databases like JSTOR ‘should’ be acting as gatekeepers to our cultural heritage. Most of the discussion, though, seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what JSTOR and other such services do (note I call them services, not collections or content providers), and by association, call into question the role of libraries.
First common argument: Isn’t it ridiculous that JSTOR charges $12 for a download of a single article to users who don’t have access to a subscription?
Answer: Yes! This is a fundamental failure on the part of JSTOR to update their pricing model. They would sell far more than enough articles if they a) used the Apple $.99 download model and b) diversified their distribution model to take into account the other places people now get ePubs.
Second common argument: But JSTOR is selling access to an article that is otherwise freely available because it is in the public domain. Isn’t that crazy/immoral?
Answer: No. This is where you need to understand what JSTOR, Web of Science, Scopus, etc. do. They are services that provide access to collections. They do this by creating rich, article-level metadata and often by indexing the full text of something. Lots of old books that are in the public domain have been digitized by Google. Hundreds of thousands of scholars, though, still find Early English Books Online (a subscription database) to be useful. Why? Because it is useful to have accurately described books that have painstakingly hand-corrected text. You can find things. And someone has to pay to keep all those people that do the hard work of describing things employed.
What we now consider big content providers–Wiley, ProQuest, Ebsco, etc.–came from a world of indexing services. No one thought it was crazy to pay LexisNexis for their news or law research services, even though you could acquire the content for less elsewhere. You used LexisNexis because it allowed you to find the content in a fraction of the time you could have otherwise.
And this is where this becomes an interesting argument about libraries. Are libraries storehouses of content, or are they places that help you find things? They aren’t doing any good as the former if they aren’t doing the latter.