Earlier this month, JSTOR announced that it would provide free open access to their earliest scholarly journal content, published before 1923. All of this material should be old enough to be in the public domain. (Or at least it is in the US. Since copyrights can last longer elsewhere, JSTOR is only showing pre-1870 volumes openly outside the US.) I was very pleased to hear they would be opening up this content; it’s something I’d asked them to consider ever since they ended a small trial of open, public domain volumes in their early years.
Lots of early journal content now openly readable online
The time was ripe to open access at JSTOR. (And not just because of growing discontent over limited access to public domain and publicly funded research.) Thanks to mass-digitization initiatives and other projects, much of the early journal content found in JSTOR is now also available from other sources. For instance, after Gregory Maxwell posted a torrent of pre-1923 JSTOR volumes of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, I surveyed various free digital text sites and found nearly all the same volumes, and more, available for free from Hathi Trust, Google, the Internet Archive, Gallica, PubMed Central, and the Royal Society itself. The content needed to be organized to be usefully browsable across sites, but that required a bit of basic librarianship and a bit of time.
Philosophical Transactions is not an anomaly. After collating volumes of this journal, I looked at the first ten journals that signed on to JSTOR back in the mid-1990s. (The list can be found below.) I again found that nearly all of pre-1923 content of these journals was also available from various free online sites. Now, when you look them up on The Online Books Page, you’ll find links to both the JSTOR copies and the copies at other sites.
Comparing the sites that provide this content is enlightening. In general, the JSTOR copies are better presented, with article-level tables of contents, cross-volume searching, article downloads, and consistently high scan quality. But the copies at other sites are generally usable as well, and sometimes include interesting non-editorial material, such as advertisements, that might not be present in JSTOR’s archive. By opening up access to its early content now, though, JSTOR will remain the preferred access point to this early content for most researchers — and that, hopefully, will help attract and sustain paid support for the larger body of scholarly content that JSTOR provides and preserves for its subscribers.
And there’s a lot more in the public domain
JSTOR currently only provides open access for volumes up to 1922 (or up to 1869, if you’re not in the US). But there’s lots more public domain journal content that can be made available. Looking again at the initial ten JSTOR journals, I found that all of them have additional public domain content that is currently not available as open access on JSTOR, or as of yet on other sites. That’s because journals published in the US before 1964 had to renew their copyrights after 28 years or enter the public domain. But most scholarly journals, including these 10, did not renew the copyrights to all their issues. Here’s a list of the 10 journals, and their first issue copyright renewals:
- The American Historical Review – began 1895; issues first renewed in 1931
- Econometrica – began 1933; issues first renewed in 1942
- The American Economic Review – began 1911; issues not renewed before 1964 (when renewal became automatic)
- Journal of Political Economy – began 1892; issues first renewed in 1953
- Journal of Modern History – began 1929, issues first renewed in 1953
- The William and Mary Quarterly – began 1892; issues first renewed in 1946
- The Quarterly Journal of Economics – began 1886; issues first renewed in 1934
- The Mississippi Valley Historical Review (now the Journal of American History) – began 1914; issues first renewed in 1939
- Speculum – began 1926; issues first renewed in 1934
- Review of Economic Statistics (now the Review of Economics and Statistics) – began 1919; issues first renewed in 1935
This list reflects more proactive renewal policies than were typical for scholarly journals. A few years ago, I did a survey of JSTOR journals (summarized in this presentation) that were publishing between 1923 and 1950, and found that only 49 out of 298, or about 1/6, renewed any of their issue copyrights for that time period. (JSTOR has since added more journals covering this time period, so the numbers will be different now, but I suspect the renewal rate won’t be any higher now than it was then.)
Currently JSTOR has no plans to open up access to post-1922 journal volumes. But many of those volumes have been digitized, and are in Google’s or Hathi Trust’s collections; or they could be digitized by contributors to the Internet Archive or similar text archives.
If someone does want to open up these volumes, they should re-check their copyright status. In particular, I have not yet checked the copyright status of individual articles in these journals, which can in theory be renewed separately. In practice, I’ve found this rarely done for scholarly articles, but not completely unknown. It might be feasible for me to do a “first article renewal” inventory for journals, like I’ve done for first issue renewal, which could speed up clearances.
Opportunities for open librarianship
JSTOR’s recent open access release of early journals, then, is just the beginning of the open access historic journal content that can be available online. JSTOR provides a valuable service to libraries in providing and preserving comprehensive digital back runs of major scholarly journals, both public domain and copyrighted. But while our libraries pay for that service, let’s also remember our mission to provide access to knowledge for all whenever possible. JSTOR’s contribution in opening its pre-1923 journal volumes is a much-appreciated contribution to a high-quality open record of early scholarship. We can build on that further, with copyright research, digitization, and some basic public librarianship. (I’ve discussed the basics of journal liberation in previous posts.)
For my part, I plan to start by gradually incorporating the open access JSTOR offerings into the serial listings of the Online Books Page, as time permits. I can also gather further copyright information on these and other journals as I bring them in. I’m also happy to hear about more journals that are or can go online (whether they’re JSTOR journals or not); you can submit them via my suggestion interface.
How about you? What would you like to see from the early scholarly record, and what can you do to help open it up?