October 19, 2007

Library dean fights to keep online archive available

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. – To David H. Carlson, the American Association for the Advancement of Science's recent decision to withdraw access to back issues of its oft-read Science magazine from a popular nonprofit online archive is "unconscionable."

Libraries and indeed library consortiums worldwide are on the bandwagon with the dean of library affairs at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and Carlson said this week there's a glimmer of hope. Hope that students, faculty and staff may still be able to view Science back issues through JSTOR, a digital archive that hosts numerous research publications.

Carlson said the announcement that the American Association for the Advancement of Science, better known as AAAS, plans to no longer offer its journal through JSTOR after the end of the year is disturbing for several reasons. He sees it as the continuation of a trend toward putting profit above learning and mission. And, while that bothers him in general, he finds it even more troubling because AAAS is a membership-based, not-for-profit organization whose members are primarily in the higher education community.

"This is really tragic," Carlson said. "AAAS and JSTOR are both non-profits created to promote knowledge and provide access to research. I'm disappointed, angered and perplexed by the decision that inhibits access by the very people who need and want it.

"Science magazine is one of the premier sources in the world for general information at a non-specialist level," Carlson said. In fact, he said it's on a par for science with what the New England Journal of Medicine is to the medical field.

"A lot of people find it helpful as a starting point for research," Carlson said. Access through JSTOR means people have been able to find any story published from the magazine's inception in the 1880's until five years ago. The publisher retains the current five years to assure profitability, Carlson said.

Carlson reacted to the late-summer announcement by sending a letter to AAAS outlining his concerns. When he got no response, he wrote a resolution expressing disagreement with the AAS decision to discontinue Science's participation in JSTOR, saying the decision "is in conflict with AAAS' mission, advancing science, serving society."

In short order, the Greater Western Library Alliance and the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois both adopted the resolution. SIUC belongs to both library consortiums. The charge led by Carlson found him on the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education and got attention well beyond the region. In fact, the International Coalition of Library Consortia got wind of the resolution, and with a bit of rewording, adopted it at its meeting in Stockholm this month. By late this week, consortiums all over the United States, Canada and internationally had endorsed the resolution.

JSTOR functions something akin to the way popular Internet search engines work when people "surf the net." A student or faculty researcher can simply access JSTOR and then type in a research topic. JSTOR gives access to all relevant texts dating back to the beginning of the printed material's lifetime. Carlson said that frequently, even if someone isn't specifically looking within Science magazine for research, a JSTOR search leads them there, where there's much applicable information for their use.

"That's one of the great things about JSTOR," Carlson said. "It's a multi-faceted resource."

For example, entering the word "evolution" accesses countless articles, including many within Science magazine, that cover not only the current timeframe like a typical search engine accesses, but stories dating back more than 100 years. JSTOR, a 1997 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation creation, hosts more than 450 publishers and 900 academic journals in its digital archives. Each publication is archived from its first issue until a time two to five years ago, depending upon the publisher's agreement with JSTOR. Thousands of institutions subscribe to its collections.

Plans call for current JSTOR subscribers to still be able to access Science up through 2002 after the end of this year. But new subscribers won't have that access and current subscribers won't be able to access anything after 2002. Carlson said AAAS hasn't announced definitive plans, but the trend seems to be toward self-holding of archives, which would likely require payment of additional access fees by libraries.

Libraries already pay subscription and access fees for JSTOR. They would incur additional access or subscription fees to gain access to Science or similar magazines if the publications hold their own archives, according to Carlson. Many libraries eliminated print copies due to critical space shortages and the same cost and space issues still exist.

"Whatever the AAAS does, I'm sure it's going to cost us more," Carlson said. "It's essential to have things like this magazine and at the same time, if we truly need something or can't do without it, do we have to pay any price? Libraries feel like over the last eight or 10 years, we've been taken advantage of. We understand fiduciary responsibility but when you put undue pressure on your membership audience, that puts money before mission."

Carlson said the public outcry, concern and attention may have an upside. He met last week with Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the AAAS, and officials from JSTOR.

"Based on that conversation, I'm hopeful they're going to talk again," Carlson said. "I'm not sure what the outcome of these talks will be, but we're hopeful."