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For a subscription-based content vault like JSTOR, the economy of the modern Web is a double-edged sword.

On one side, you have open-culture hacktivists like Aaron Swartz trying to spring your paywalled content by allegedly sneaking into a wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloading 4.8 million documents from your online archive. This edge can cut against you — as it did in July, when Swartz’s caper framed the open-access debate (fairly or not) in terms of Swartz, the geek-hero, versus JSTOR, the Scrooge.

On the other side, you have universal Web search engines sending droves of unlikely visitors to your content. They might not be paying the toll to get in, but the fact that they found their way to the door means your potential clientele is larger, and closer at hand, than you had imagined. And if your mission is the dissemination of knowledge, that's a good thing.

This edge can cut for you — and JSTOR has begun trying to wield it to expand the archive’s user base. In 2009, the nonprofit opened its Alumni Access pilot, a program that allows subscribing institutions to pay an extra fee to buy lifetime access to the archive for its alumni. Then, last September, JSTOR announced its Early Journal Content program, which allows anybody in the world to download hundreds of thousands of the older articles in its archive for free, no matter where they went to college.

Now JSTOR is getting ready to go one step further, by cutting a small window in its paywall for visitors who are not affiliated with any subscribing institution. The new program, called Register & Read, will soon let anybody read articles in the JSTOR archives at no cost.

Under the new program, unsubscribed visitors will be allowed to check out three “items” from the JSTOR archive every two weeks, which they will be able to read for free. In order to prevent piracy, the texts will be displayed as image files (so that text cannot be copied). Users will not be able to download the files.

The depletion of the traditional professoriate has produced a new demographic of unmoored scholars who might not have “the consistency of access that they want,” says Heidi McGregor, a spokeswoman for JSTOR. The goal of Register & Read would be to better serve that population — as well as others that the organization might not have even known about.

Seventy journals are participating in the pilot, including Ecology, American Anthropologist, PMLA, the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Finance, and the American Historical Review.

Since 1995, JSTOR, which aggregates the back issues of more than 1,000 scholarly journals, dating back hundreds of years, in its digital archive, has made its bones selling subscriptions to libraries — charging its largest clients up to $50,000 per annum. The organization says that business model is still working, despite reports that many libraries are cutting expenditures. JSTOR has operated at a 5 percent surplus in each of the last five years, according to McGregor.

But the number of would-be users JSTOR was turning away at the door had grown too staggering to ignore. It says it stymied 150 million attempts to access its content in 2010.

Notwithstanding the shenanigans of Swartz and his ilk, JSTOR officials say the organization has no plans to dismantle its paywall entirely. In fact, one objective of the Register & Read program is to turn the non-affiliated readers into customers.

“Our goal is to try to understand better what kinds of approaches will work down the line,” says McGregor. That could mean an online rental model that offers more flexibility than the pilot’s three-items-per-14-days policy. It could mean an unlimited yearly subscription option for single users. JSTOR will not know more until it learns who these users are.  

That is where the registration part comes in. During the pilot, the only thing a non-subscribing visitor will have to pony up in exchange for limited access to the JSTOR trove is some basic personal information: her name, e-mail address, academic job title or degree status, institutional affiliation (if any), and primary area of study.

The idea is for JSTOR to do what many online media companies — most famously Netflix and Amazon — have done: learn about the tastes of individual users and recommend other titles to those users based on their tastes and activity. McGregor says JSTOR has invested a lot in data warehousing servers over the past year (she would not say how much), with the idea that the JSTOR platform should know not only about the institutions that subscribe to its vault, but the researchers who use it.

“Ultimately, we want to use that information to provide better services to people,” says McGregor. “If people log into JSTOR [when] they use the site, it will help us better understand how to help them find what they’re looking for.”

Some of the program’s publishing partners said they, too are excited to learn more about their individual readers, and expect that JSTOR will be sharing profile data of JSTOR registrants that access their journal content through Register & Read.

“This is a project we hope will give us an avenue into a new user group that perhaps we’re underserving,” says Kate Duff, marketing director for the journals division of the University of Chicago Press. Five of the press's 50 journals are involved in the Register & Read pilot.

Duff says that while the main driver behind the Chicago press’s involvement is dissemination and “information-gathering,” the Chicago press also hopes to convert some curious browsers into paying customers.

“Primarily, I’m hoping it will drive usage,” she says. “But secondarily, I would hope that it would drive sales of individual articles and perhaps even sales of subscriptions.”

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