Sharing journals freely online

What are all the research journals that anyone can read freely online?  The answer is harder to determine than you might think.  Most research library catalogs can be searched for online serials (here’s what Penn Libraries gives access to, for instance), but it’s often hard for unaffiliated readers to determine what they can get access to, and what will throw up a paywall when they try following a link.

Current research

The best-known listing of current free research journals has been the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ), a comprehensive listing of free-to-read research journals in all areas of scholarship. Given the ease with which anyone can throw up a web site and call it a “journal” regardless of its quality or its viability, some have worried that the directory might be a little too comprehensive to be useful.  A couple of years ago, though, DOAJ instituted more stringent criteria for what it accepts, and it recently weeded its listings of journals that did not reapply under its new criteria, or did not meet its requirements.   This week I am pleased to welcome over 8,000 of its journals to the extended-shelves listings of The Online Books Page.  The catalog entries are automatically derived from the data DOAJ provides; I’m also happy to create curated entries with more detailed cataloging on readers’ request.

Historic research

Scholarly journals go back centuries.  Many of these journals (and other periodicals) remain of interest to current scholars, whether they’re interested in the history of science and culture, the state of the natural world prior to recent environmental changes, or analyses and source documents that remain directly relevant to current scholarship.  Many older serials are also included in The Online Books Page’s extended shelves courtesy of HathiTrust, which currently offers over 130,000 serial records with at least some free-to-read content.  Many of these records are not for research journals, of course, and those that are can sometimes be fragmentary or hard to navigate.  I’m also happy to create organized, curated records for journals offered by HathiTrust and others at readers’ request.

It’s important work to organize and publicize these records, because many of these journals that go back a long way don’t make their content freely available in the first place one might look.  Recently I indexed five journals founded over a century ago that are still used enough to be included in Harvard’s 250 most popular works: Isis, The Journal of Comparative Neurology, The Journal of Infectious Diseases, The Journal of Roman Studies, and The Philosophical Review.  All five had public domain content offered at their official journal site, or JSTOR, behind paywalls (with fees for access ranging from $10 to $42 per article) that was available for free elsewhere online.  I’d much rather have readers find the free content than be stymied by a paywall.  So I’m compiling free links for these and other journals with public domain runs, whether they can be found at Hathitrust, JSTOR (which does make some early journal content, including from some of these journals, freely available), or other sites.

For many of these journals, the public domain extends as late as the 1960s due to non-renewal of copyright, so I’m also tracking when copyright renewals actually start for these journals.  I’ve done a complete inventory of serials published until 1950 that renewed their own copyrights up to 1977.  Some scholarly journals are in this list, but most are not, and many that are did not renew copyrights for many years beyond 1922.  (For the five journals mentioned above, for instance, the first copyright-renewed issues were published in 1941, 1964, 1959, 1964, and 1964 respectively– 1964 being the first year for which renewals were automatic.)

Even so, major projects like HathiTrust and JSTOR have generally stopped opening journal content at 1922, partly out of a concern for the complexity of serial copyright research.  In particular, contributions to serials could have their own copyright renewals separate from renewals for the serials themselves.  Could this keep some unrenewed serials out of the public domain?  To answer this question, I’ve also started surveying information on contribution renewals, and adding information on those renewals to my inventory.  Having recently completed this survey for all 1920s serials, I can report that so far individual contributions to scholarly journals were almost never copyright-renewed on their own.  (Individual short stories, and articles for general-interest popular magazines, often were, but not articles intended for scientific or scholarly audiences.)  I’ll post an update if the situation changes in the 1930s or later. So far, though, it’s looking like, at least for research journals, serial digitization projects can start opening issues past 1922 with little risk.  There are some review requirements, but they’re comparable in complexity to the Copyright Review Management System that HathiTrust has used to successfully open access to hundreds of thousands of post-1922 public domain book volumes.

Recent research

Let’s not forget that a lot more recent research is also available freely online, often from journal publishers themselves.  DOAJ only tracks journals that make their content open access immediately, but there are also many journals that make their content freely readable online a few months or years after initial publication.  This content can then be found in repositories like PubMedCentral (see the journals noted as “Full” in the “participation” column), publishing platforms like Highwire Press (see the journals with entries in the “free back issues” column), or individual publishers’ programs such as Elsevier’s Open Archives.

Why are publishers leaving money on the table by making old but copyrighted content freely available instead of charging for it?  Often it’s because it’s what’s makes their supporters– scholars and their funders– happy.  NIH, which runs PubMedCentral, already mandates open access to research it funds, and many of the journals that fully participate in PubMedCentral’s free issue program are largely filled with NIH-backed research.  Similarly, I suspect that the high proportion of math journals in Elsevier’s Open Archives selection has something to do with the high proportion of mathematicians in the Cost of Knowledge protest against Elsevier.  When researchers, and their affiliated organizations, make their voices heard, publishers listen.

I’m happy to include listings for  significant free runs of significant research journals on The Online Books Page as well, whether they’re open access from the get-go or after a delay.  I won’t list journals that only make the occasional paid-for article available through a “hybrid” program, or those that only have sporadic “free sample” issues.  But if a journal you value has at least a continuous year’s worth of full-sized, complete issues permanently freely available, please let me know about it and I’ll be glad to check it out.

Sharing journal information

I’m not simply trying to build up my own website, though– I want to spread this information around, so that people can easily find free research journal content wherever they go.  Right now, I have a Dublin Core OAI feed for all curated Online Books Page listings as well as a monthly dump of my raw data file, both CC0-licensed.  But I think I could do more to get free journal information to libraries and other interested parties.  I don’t have MARC records for my listings at the moment, but I suspect that holdings information– what issues of which journals are freely available, and from whom– is more useful for me to provide than bibliographic descriptions of the journals (which can already be obtained from various other sources).  Would a KBART file, published online or made available to initiatives like the Global Open Knowledgebase, be useful?  Or would something else work better to get this free journal information more widely known and used?

Issues and volumes vs. articles

Of course, many articles are made available online individually as well, as many journal publishers allow.  I don’t have the resources at this point to track articles at an individual level, but there are a growing number of other efforts that do, whether they’re proprietary but comprehensive search platforms like Google Scholar and Web of Science, disciplinary repositories like ArXiV and SSRN, institutional repositories and their aggregators like SHARE and BASE, or outright bootleg sites like Sci-Hub.  We know from them that it’s possible to index and provide access to the scholarly knowledge exchange at a global scale, but doing it accurately, openly, comprehensively, sustainably, and ethically is a bigger challenge.   I think it’s a challenge that the academic community can solve if we make it a priority.  We created the research; let’s also make it easy for the world to access it, learn from it, and put it to work.  Let’s make open access to research articles the norm, not the exception.

And as part of that, if you’d like to help me highlight and share information on free, authorized sources for online journal content, please alert me to relevant journals, make suggestions in the comments here, or get in touch with me offline.

Author: John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.

2 thoughts on “Sharing journals freely online”

  1. Re Hathi, you should install the developer version of the Opera Web browser, and use its free built-in VPN to access Hathi as-if from the UK, Germany etc. You’ll find that titles such as the The Journal of Roman Studies are not accessible outside America.

  2. Hathi’s actually good at telling me when they’re only making volumes viewable within the US, even without a VPN or proxy; hence the “Access may be restricted outside the United States” note on my Journal of Roman Studies entry. If I knew of another source for early volumes of this journal, I’d be happy to list it. Unfortunately I have not found any such (and both Hathi and JSTOR are conservative in slightly different ways about access to publications originating outside the US). For some of the other journals I mention on this post, I link to Internet Archive volumes that are not geo-restricted, but they don’t seem to carry this journal at present. If you know of other Journal of Roman Studies sources that are freely available globally, please let me know. Thanks for your comment!

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