Every semester the story was the same. A day or two before the deadline for submitting the assignment, panic would set in and everyone in college would reverently turn to the one place of solace — JSTOR. JSTOR is a digital library of academic papers, journals and books. Every college student has deep-dived into the academic articles from JSTOR, trying out different permutations and combinations of keywords to gain access to that one perfect essay that would sail their assignment through.
It was important to ensure that you identified the right essay because JSTOR only gives you access to three free articles for 20 days — unless you had institutional access, which few did.
But now, in an attempt to extend solidarity during the coronavirus crisis, JSTOR has announced free access to over 6,000 books and 150 journals. Great news, right? Except it’s not. Twitter users have pointed out that JSTOR has not released any essay that was under paywall; instead, it is just replugging those articles and papers that users already had open access to.
Essentially, JSTOR has simply tried to score brownie points on the back of a deadly virus that has claimed more than 10,000 lives globally. But then, the archival site is not known to be particularly kind to people.
Just for perspective, JSTOR has been unable to bring itself to give academics and researchers open access to ‘publicly sourced’ content at a time when the whole world is under quarantine and going through an unprecedented and unnatural crisis. Then again, it’s also a time to get on the bandwagon and be appreciated for doing nothing.
‘Information is power’
In 2011, 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, a computer programmer and free-access crusader, broke into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s server in an attempt to provide free public access to essays behind JSTOR’s paywall. He downloaded approximately 4.8 million articles, roughly the entire JSTOR library. He was indicted on charges of fraud and faced up to 35 years in prison. That was the punishment for attempting to access information, which should ideally have been free. However, ‘the crime’ exacted a much higher price from Swartz — he committed suicide in 2013 before his trial.
JSTOR, or Journal Storage, is evidently ‘not for profit’ but institutions spend thousands of dollars to gain access to its library. In India, access is even more difficult because our universities have put into place exhaustive procedures. Some individual colleges don’t have access at all. Individual subscription to JSTOR costs about $20 or Rs 1500, which is more than what most students can afford.
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This was the primary reason behind Swartz’s efforts. In his self-proclaimed ‘Guerilla Open Access Manifesto’, he wrote, “Information is power… But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.”
Who owns knowledge?
The inherent opacity across the world of academia has been decried by many, so has its inaccessibility. But those within academia also are removed from their own research. To be a successful academic, you are required to have your work published in reputed journals. And once published, the paywalls hinder access to your own research, which defeats the purpose of being published.
Specifically, in terms of JSTOR, most academic journals and essays are researched and written in collaboration with public institutions, which by definition makes them open for access. However, like most spheres, capitalism is pervasive even in academia.
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