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Egg on Its Interface

August 26, 2010

When the popular scholarly database JSTOR unveiled its new interface earlier this month, some librarians were horrified by what they saw. Now, after an Internet outcry, the nonprofit scholarly journal database says it plans to change two features that critics said were bound to confuse, frustrate, and squeeze money out of researchers.

“We agree, basically, with the critics that we don’t have all the infrastructure in place for this to be right for everyone,” said Kevin Guthrie, founding president of JSTOR and its sister organization, Ithaka. “We feel it’s not tuned right.”

Still, Guthrie said one key concession — suppressing from search results articles that require additional payment to view in full — might only be temporary. That caveat could portend future conflicts with librarians as JSTOR keeps growing its database to include more and more content it does not own.

Two elements of the site’s new interface elicited the ire of two academic bloggers and a number of commenters on Tuesday. The first was a search parameter asking users if they want their search to call up articles from JSTOR’s entire collection, or only those covered by their library’s subscription. The interface chooses the comprehensive option by default, meaning some articles that come up in the search results cannot be read in full unless the researcher pays an additional fee. Further, the interface does not let users change the default to hide those pay-walled articles.

“That probably doesn’t matter to a large university that subscribes to every JSTOR collection known to man,” wrote Meredith Farkas, an instructional technologist at Norwich University, in a blog post, “but for libraries of small to medium size that only subscribe to maybe four or fewer collections, your students will suddenly be seeing a lot of results in JSTOR that they can’t access.”

That is not all. The librarians’ other concern was that JSTOR did not let libraries embed special links, called OpenURLs, pointing patrons to full texts of the pay-walled articles available elsewhere in the libraries’ catalogs.

“For example, if I found an article from The Reading Teacher in JSTOR, I will see the option to purchase it, but be offered no other way to access the full text,” wrote Amy Fry, an electronic resources coordinator at Bowling Green State University, in a post on ACRLog, the official blog of the Association of College and Research Libraries. “…I would [never] know that my library has access to this article in half a dozen other databases.”

Farkas noted a similar experience in her perambulations through the new interface. “Either a lot of smart people don’t understand the purpose of OpenURL,” she wrote, “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 redesign of the JSTOR interface is the latest in a series of steps related to the database’s “current issues” project — an effort to make articles from the latest editions of academic journals available via JSTOR. When JSTOR announced the project last summer and quickly signed deals with several major university presses, many librarians heralded it as a positive development. Libraries would no longer have to buy access to the new journal articles from individual publishers; they could just go through JSTOR.

But the way JSTOR mandated that the pay-walled “current issues” articles be included in search results by default, and tried to encourage users to purchase those articles from its partners instead of allowing their libraries to guide them to free versions elsewhere in the catalog, makes Farkas suspect something sinister may be afoot.

“Something is clearly going on behind the scenes that we’re missing the boat on,” Farkas wrote. “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 [competing database] EBSCO become [too] much? Did you have to make concessions that benefit your publishing partners but hurt the end user?”

“Absolutely not,” Guthrie, the JSTOR founder, told Inside Higher Ed on Wednesday afternoon. “We’re absolutely not trying to have users purchase articles they already have access to.”

The idea behind including the current issues in JSTOR searches by default was to make the researcher aware of as many relevant articles as possible — even if some of those articles were still behind publisher pay-walls or in parts of the JSTOR database the researcher’s library did not subscribe to, Guthrie said.

Guthrie said he did not know exactly why the JSTOR interface did not enable OpenURL links to any free versions of those articles available elsewhere in the library. He suggested it might have been a simple oversight. “We should have deployed that before we opened search-and-browse,” he said. “…It’s a legitimate concern, and it is being addressed.”

In the wake of the blog criticism, JSTOR has decided to change both of the features. Giving libraries the power to change the default setting such that non-accessible articles remain hidden is now a “number one priority,” Guthrie said. Adding the OpenURL linking capability to discourage redundant article purchases is a “longer-term” priority, although JSTOR intends to do it. Neither will happen immediately, Guthrie said, since making the changes is “not like flipping a switch” — but the company does plan to “move in that direction.”

Amid his concessions, Guthrie did emphasize that JSTOR still plans to put a high value on “discovery” — a philosophy that might eventually put the organization at odds with those who want to hide pay-walled articles from search results. Excluding such articles from search results contradicts the entire “current issues” project, which is designed to expand the searchable articles in the JSTOR database beyond those that publishers have ceded to JSTOR. Yes, the organization plans to switch the default settings — but only “for now.”

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