February 16, 2018

JSTOR Announces Free Access to 500K Public Domain Journal Articles

By David Rapp, 9/7/2011

The JSTOR journal archive announced today that it is making nearly 500,000 public domain journal articles from more than 220 journals—or about six percent of JSTOR’s total content—freely available for use by “anyone, without registration and regardless of institutional affiliation.”

The material, entitled Early Journal Content, will be rolled out in batches starting today over the course of one week. It includes content published in the United States before 1923 and international content published before 1870, which ensures that all the content is firmly in the public domain. JSTOR, in an announcement, said that the move was “a first step in a larger effort to provide more access options” to JSTOR content for independent scholars and others unaffiliated with universities.

“The Swartz and Maxwell situation”
JSTOR has indicated that the idea had been in the works for some time. But where once this may have come as a welcome but quiet announcement to the scholarly community, it now comes not long after two highly publicized incidents involving JSTOR content.

Aaron Swartz, former tech lead for the Internet Archive’s Open Library project, was federally indicted in July for allegedly stealing about 4.8 million articles from the JSTOR journal archive via a connection at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—including a large number of public domain articles. JSTOR declined to press charges after recovering its content from Swartz, but the case is still being pursued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Later in July, a user of the controversial site The Pirate Bay, going by the name “Greg Maxwell,” uploaded more than 33 gigabytes of public domain JSTOR articles to the filesharing site, making them available for anyone to download. At the time, JSTOR normally charged for access to such articles.

JSTOR, in its online Early Journal Content FAQ, denied that its latest announcement was in response to these incidents:

Did you do this in reaction to the Swartz and Maxwell situations?
Making the Early Journal Content freely available is something we have planned to do for some time. It is not a direct reaction to the Swartz and Maxwell situation, but recent events did have an impact on our planning. We considered carefully whether to accelerate or delay going ahead with our plans, largely out of concern that people might draw incorrect conclusions about our motivations. We also have taken into account that many people care deeply about these issues. In the end, we decided to press ahead with our plans to make the Early Journal Content available, which we believe is in the best interest of the individuals we are trying to serve and our library and publisher partners.

However, the FAQ also makes clear JSTOR’s line that not everything in the public domain should necessarily be made publicly accessible for free:

Why not make any and all public domain content freely available?
We do not believe that just because something is in the public domain, it can always be provided for free. There are costs associated with selection, digitization, access provision, preservation, and a wide variety of services that are necessary for content to reach those who need it. We have determined that we can sustain free access and meet our preservation obligations for this particular set of content for individuals as part of our overall activities undertaken in pursuit of our mission.

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