Ithaka, a nonprofit organization financed by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has been urging academic publishers, libraries and universities to work together to confront the realities of the digital revolution in the sharing of scholarly research.
Among the more provocative ideas Ithaka championed in a 2007 report designed to set a course for the future was of a "shared electronic publishing infrastructure across universities [that] could allow them to save costs, create scale, leverage expertise, innovate, unite the resources of the university (e.g. libraries, presses, faculty, student body, IT) ... create a blended interlinked environment of fee-based to free information, and provide a robust alternative to commercial competitors."
Getting there may be a good ways off, despite recent electronic publishing experiments like those at Duke University and the University of Michigan and collaborations like those involving a group of East Coast presses , and, more recently,  the University of Pennsylvania and New York, Rutgers and Temple Universities. But today, Ithaka's close relative, JSTOR, is announcing the latest such experiment in conjunction with the University of California Press -- a collaboration that observers say could be significant if it expands and extends in the way its creators hope.
Under the partnership, JSTOR --  which until now has been a repository for back issues of nearly 800 journals -- will, beginning in 2011, provide current content from the 50-plus journals  that the UC Press publishes, meshing the new releases seamlessly with the journals' back files and primary content from libraries increasingly found on JSTOR. "This will be an integrated site, both chronologically, for the full run of a journal, and across titles," says Michael Spinella, executive director of JSTOR. (Another journal aggregator, Project Muse of Johns Hopkins University, is making moves in the other direction: It has focused on current titles, but is adding archival material  to its mix.)
What UC gains from the collaboration with JSTOR is assurance that its journals could be seen (and subscribed to) by students and scholars affiliated with the 6,000 libraries that now use JSTOR's archival services, says Rebecca Simon, associate director of the University of California Press, who directs its Journals + Digital Publishing Division. "We will be able to benefit from JSTOR's vast network of relationships with libraries."
And libraries themselves will gain, Spinella says, from being able to turn to one place to license current and archival versions of journals for which they must now turn to a large number of individual publishers or aggregators -- especially if, as JSTOR hopes, significantly more presses, publishers and scholarly associations follow California's lead.
"What we heard when we talked to libraries was that they really want to support nonprofit, independent publishers, but providing those journals requires them to negotiate with hundreds" of presses or associations, said Spinella. "The more of those we get to join, the greater the transaction savings will be for libraries."
As Spinella currently envisions it, libraries would buy access to both current and archival journals in a single transaction, though the pricing models would be different. Users would continue to pay for JSTOR's archival material in roughly the same way they do now, paying for collections of journals at prices set by JSTOR, but publishers will set their own prices for the current journals, which while provided through JSTOR will be clearly branded by journal and publisher.
"JSTOR will benefit from economy of scale, and pass that savings along [to libraries] in sustainable and transparent subscription pricing," says UC's Simon.
Several librarians, press directors, and other academic publishing types said they were generally pleased to see JSTOR and UC -- two leaders in the industry's digital transformation -- experimenting in this way. But some of them said they viewed it as a mildly important development that could become much more significant down the road, depending on how it evolves.
"The important issue here is whether or not other publishers will get on board with the UC Press," Steven J. Bell, associate university librarian for research & instructional services at Temple University, said in an e-mail message. "As they say, this agreement could be a 'game changer,' but not if the other publishers don’t buy in to the change."
The other change that could turn the revamped JSTOR into the kind of game changer envisioned in the Ithaka report, said Sanford G. Thatcher, executive editor for social sciences and humanities at the Penn State University Press, is if it expanded to include digital books.
"Aren't we at a point where we should be moving forward more to integrate monograph with journal content online, rather than allowing this new 'digital divide' to grow even further?" Thatcher wrote in an e-mail message, quickly adding: "But hey, I'm all for as many experiments as possible: let a thousand flowers bloom!"
The idea of integrating monographs into the project has occurred to those at both JSTOR and the UC Press, their officials say. "There are a lot of initiatives under way to really look at a uniform way of disseminating monographs and variety of books," said California's Simon. "It would be a natural extension of this platform to have that content. Eventually, it won't matter what the traditional carrier was -- it will be 'content,' in a variety of presentations, that represents the whole scope of the research endeavor."
But perhaps recognizing that many of these projects start small and grow -- Project Muse started with Johns Hopkins's 40-some journals in 1995 before opening to other presses in 2000, Thatcher noted -- Spinella speaks cautiously about such a grand vision. "We certainly understand the desire by publishers and the value to libraries and to users of having monographs and journals on the same platform, and have had some discussions around that," he said via e-mail. "But ... the immediate focus for the new initiative is delivering the journals for U. of California Press and other publishers that come on board."