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Oct. 22, 2014, 11 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Opening up the archives: JSTOR wants to tie a library to the news

Its new site JSTOR Daily highlights interesting research and offers background and context on current events.

The Journal of Parasitology published its first issue in September 1914. The academic journal — which, you’ll be surprised to learn, publishes scholarly writing about the study of parasites — is celebrating its 100th anniversary this fall. You can even buy a t-shirt to mark the occasion! But unless you’re a parasitologist, it’s unlikely you’ve even heard of the journal, let alone were aware of its major birthday.

But JSTOR Daily, a new online magazine from the digital academic library JSTOR, is looking to introduce academic research and scholarly writers to a broader audience. So JSTOR Daily ran a short post commemorating the anniversary while explaining the future of parasitology and how climate change is changing the nature of how parasites are studied.

JSTOR Daily describes itself as “a cross between The American Scholar, Arts and Letters Daily, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Pacific Standard, and a general culture magazine like The Atlantic or The New Yorker.” There are more than 2,000 academic journals — including all 100 years of The Journal of Parasitology — in JSTOR’s archive and the new site’s defining feature is its ability include information from that massive library. Each JSTOR citation includes a link back to the original content, which users can then access for free. So in the story on the Journal of Parisitology, those who want to learn more can read Maurice C. Hall’s “Experimental Ingestion by Man of Cysticerci of Carnivore Tapeworms” in full.

“How do you connect the public with the ideas of scholars in a more regular way, in a more daily way? How do you get people to look a little more deeply at the issues that are affecting us as people or countries?” said Heidi McGregor, the vice president of marketing and communications of JSTOR’s parent, describing the thinking behind starting the site. “It really came out of that, and an online magazine seemed like an obvious way to do that,” she said. JSTOR’s goal is to attract 100,000 unique visitors to the site per month. (JSTOR.org is averaging 6.7 million overall pageviews per month so far in 2014, McGregor said.)

Access to JSTOR isn’t cheap, and the repository was widely criticized after Internet activist Aaron Swartz’s suicide in January 2013 for the walls it puts around its content. At the time of his death, Swartz was being prosecuted by the federal government for stealing 4.8 million articles from JSTOR. McGregor, who has worked for JSTOR since 1998, said they have long tried to increase access to its library and that the Swartz incident didn’t directly impact the development of JSTOR Daily — though she added that “it’s almost impossible for that whole situation not to be in any thought process.”

Most university libraries subscribe to JSTOR, but for individual researchers, the costs to accessing the material can be prohibitive. In recent years, JSTOR has launched a number of efforts to allow wider use of its library. Last year, it introduced JPASS, which allowed users to access and download older journal articles for $19.95 a month or $199 annually.

“It’s a really fun kind of writing, to kind of have an excuse to highlight the research and researchers that are in JSTOR, which is just this incredible archive — but for most people it’s locked behind a paywall, and it’s also locked behind the language that scholars sometimes use,” said Ruth Graham, who writes for the site. “It’s a great excuse to haul it out into the light and write about it in a way that connects to the general reader, because a lot of it is totally fascinating and deserves a wider audience.”

JSTOR is primarily a digital library, but it shares a problem with many news organizations: how to maximize the value of its voluminous archives. “We can be both a daily newsletter and a library — offering news every day, as well as providing context, relevance and timeless works of journalism,” The New York Times wrote in its innovation report, leaked back in May.

That’s the kind of attitude JSTOR Daily editor Catherine Halley has brought to the site. Halley, who was previously director of digital programs at the Poetry Foundation, was brought on as the site’s only full-time employee in April. Halley is based in New York and works with another part-time editor in Chicago and a roster of freelance writers — a mix of journalists and academics — from around the country.

The site launched publicly in late September, officially in beta. Halley said she expects JSTOR to roll-out a more customized version of the site, which runs on WordPress, next year. JSTOR Daily publishes two to three short posts per day during the week, and it also runs a longer feature stories and blog posts every Wednesday and Saturday.

Thus far the mix has included stories with headlines like “The Atlanta Symphony strike from an organizational science perspective” and “Indian leopards living high on the dog,” which is about leopards in urban areas in India who…eat dogs. JSTOR Daily has also introduced some recurring columns like (Un)Catalogued, a column historian Megan Kate Nelson writes on archival research.

JSTOR Daily won’t be breaking any stories, Halley said, explaining that she hopes the site will “provide the backstory to the news” — if articles are tied to the news cycle at all. “I want to emphasize the experimental nature of this,” she said. “We’re going to see what sticks, what sorts of things people are interested in, and how they want to find out about what’s in JSTOR.”

Halley reiterated that while JSTOR continues figuring out its exact publishing strategy and how it wants to become a content producer. “JSTOR is primarily a digital library, and we haven’t produced our own content before, so this is a real shift for the organization,” Halley said.

JSTOR doesn’t own all rights to the materials in its library, so there are restrictions on what JSTOR Daily can include and link back to. McGregor said that JSTOR Daily has access to about 80 percent of the archive, and writers told me that the restrictions weren’t too limiting.

“It really just depends on what I happen to stumble upon in the archives that’s really interesting,” said writer Livia Gershon. “If I find something that I feel like would be interesting to me — I would love to read somebody bringing this to my attention, even if it’s a bit of a stretch to tie it into something that’s going on — I still try to go for that.”

Photo by Barta IV used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 22, 2014, 11 a.m.
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