New and Improved – or Not?

One of the lovely surprises awaiting those who have been away from the reference desk for a while is the numerous spanking new database interfaces that have sprouted up. There seem to be more than usual this year, and while some are improvements, others, frankly, need a good spanking. One that has us particularly flummoxed is the new JSTOR interface that defaults to searching material your library doesn’t have and offers new layers of confusion. (“Is this article available at my library in another database?” “Sorry, we can’t tell you that, but we can provide a handy link through our publisher sales service to purchase articles.”)

As an aside, do publishers seriously expect people to purchase articles for $12, $25, or $35 a pop? Really? They have not met my patrons. But I digress.

I was coasting along in blissful ignorance until I got this guest post from our occasional correspondent from Bowling Green State University, Amy Fry. I have a feeling JSTOR will be getting a lot of feedback on their “improvements.” Here are some thoughts to start the conversation.


What Were They Thinking?
Amy Fry
Electronic Resources Coordinator
Bowling Green State University

Today is the first day of the new semester at BGSU, and also the first school day of the new JSTOR interface.

What were they thinking?

JSTOR began life as a journal archive, but librarians have long treated it as an all-full-text, all-scholarly database for journal literature. While its search interface lagged, with limited options to weed out unwanted items or zero in on the most relevant results, its content was stellar, and librarians felt confident promoting it to students as a reliable place to find full-text scholarly sources. As a result, JSTOR has a strong brand not only with librarians, but with faculty and students at all kinds of institutions. Those days appear to be over, at least for now.

Last year, JSTOR embarked on a “current scholarship” endeavor, which allows libraries to use JSTOR as a portal for current subscriptions to some titles. The interface upgrade that went into effect this weekend was meant to support that program. But now that the upgraded interface is live, I can see what this means for JSTOR libraries.

JSTOR has added several confusing layers to its formerly reliable content archive that are guaranteed to confound the most experienced JSTOR user. The search screen contains two limiters – “include only content I can access” and “include links to external content.” The first is unchecked by default and the second is checked by default. This guarantees the broadest journal searching in the archive, but it also means that, after doing a search, users at many institutions will see three kinds of results – ones that are full text, ones that give citation and “access options,” and ones indicating there may be full text on an “external site.”

These last are the “current issues,” and have appeared in JSTOR search results (for titles in libraries’ subscribed JSTOR modules) since last year. Clicking on one of these in the results list shows its citation, abstract and references. Since we have enabled openURL on JSTOR, it also shows our openURL button (which will allow users to link to full text or interlibrary loan). Next to our openURL button, however, there is a box that says “you may not have access,” and to “select the ‘article on external site’ link to go to a site with the article’s full text.” Nowhere on this page do I see an “article on external site” link, but at least the openURL button is there.

The real problem is with the other articles – the ones that only offer “citations and access options.” These are articles from the modules of JSTOR to which my institution does not subscribe. Formerly, articles from non-subscribed JSTOR modules did not even appear in my institution’s JSTOR search results. This was certainly preferable to how these are handled now: now when users click on them, they see the first page of the pdf and have the option to show the citation information, but at the top of the screen is a yellow box containing the text, “You do not have access to this item. Login or check our access options.” Clicking on “login” takes users to the MyJSTOR login screen which asks for your MyJSTOR username and password or gives users the option to choose their institution from a list of Athens/Shibboleth libraries. Clicking on “access options” informs the user he or she must be a member of a participating institution, links to a list of participating institutions, then gives the user the option to purchase individual articles or subscriptions. Worse, newer articles display a price and direct link to purchase the article right next to the first page of the pdf.

Nowhere on this screen do users have the option to use openURL to link to full text or interlibrary loan. In effect, JSTOR has pre-empted library subscriptions to current content for links to purchase articles directly from publishers. For example, if I found an article from The Reading Teacher in JSTOR, I will see the option to purchase it, but be offered no other way to access the full text. If the openURL button for my library appeared there, I would know that my library has access to this article in half a dozen other databases and I would never have the need to purchase it.

Academic librarians at institutions like mine – non-Athens/Shibboleth, non-full-JSTOR-archive subscribers, can expect to get a ton of questions now from students. Expecting JSTOR to be (at least mostly) full text as it has always been, these students will log in upon accessing the database (if they are off campus). When they find one of these “access options” articles in JSTOR, they will try logging in again, then, when that doesn’t work, they will look for our institution in the list of Athens/Shibboleth institutions. Then, if it’s an article they really want, they will call or IM the library and explain that JSTOR is asking them for a login, which will be a troubleshooting struggle as this usually only happens when students try to access JSTOR from Google or Google Scholar. In the worst-case scenario, they will waste their money on content we already purchase elsewhere. In an even worse worst-case scenario, they will abandon JSTOR as another confusing and misleading library website and turn to other sources. Students are not terribly likely to purchase individual articles – they are more likely to move on and try to find something that is full text, even if it is less relevant. This may turn out to be a boon to EBSCO, but it’s going to frustrating as hell for libraries, and could turn sour for JSTOR.

JSTOR apologists will no doubt point out that individual users can change their limiter options on the initial search screen and search only content that will give them full-text results in JSTOR. But they will only do this if they understand what “include only content I can access” and “include links to external content” mean and, despite the explanatory text linked to the latter, I am not even entirely sure what these mean. Is “content I can access” just my institution’s JSTOR modules, or does it include “current issues” links for titles in my institution’s JSTOR modules, and, if so, are all of these indeed titles I have full-text access to through my institution’s current subscriptions? Good question. Do the “links to external content” mean just current issues and, if so, are they current issues for just titles in my library’s JSTOR modules, or for those in all JSTOR modules? I have made notes to ask JSTOR these questions when they get back to me about why the heck my openURL button doesn’t appear in results with the other “access options” for articles outside our JSTOR modules, but most users don’t even realize JSTOR has modules, and likely will not be able to understand what these two limiters mean, even after they’ve done a search.

So, what is JSTOR thinking? It seems like they are trying to move the archive towards being an expanded content platform in order to become an expanded platform for discovery, but have skipped some vital steps along the way. Let’s not forget, JSTOR has no administrative module, it has certainly not fully implemented openURL (as this platform upgrade shows), and though it does offer COUNTER Journal reports, it still offers no COUNTER-compliant statistics for sessions and searches.


I think Amy has nailed it by describing this as a fundamental shift from journal archive to “discovery platform.” I don’t know how your users will respond, but I predict mine will be confused and unhappy – at least until they get the hang of manually selecting “content I can access” every time they search. (There is no option for libraries to set that as a default.) Much as I respect JSTOR, I’m not looking forward to the questions we’ll be getting.

What do you think?

Illustration courtesy of autumn_bliss.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

13 thoughts on “New and Improved – or Not?”

  1. I actually have no problem with it being a discovery interface, if, like most discovery interfaces, you could then link to the full-text in whatever database your library held it in (or at least easily get to your library’s ILL form). As it is, we constantly have grad students finding JSTOR articles in Google that we don’t have through JSTOR and paying for access themselves, never realizing that they could have just waited a couple of days and gotten it through ILL (or maybe we even had it in another DB!!!).

    I kind of like the fact that they are showing patrons everything now — but if they don’t allow libraries to easily link students to other DBs or ILL, they are basically taking libraries back about 8-10 years. It’s absurd and easily remedied. I also find it very difficult to believe that they hadn’t anticipated that patrons and librarians alike would not be happy with this.

  2. It’s passing strange that they decided to turn it into a discovery interface without looking at their competition or checking to see what scholars need from a discovery engine. You wonder if anyone involved in this change actually does research in libraries. They would realize how crucial the “okay, now how do I get it?” step is.

  3. I work on a small journal affiliated with a university press that is barely hanging on to our survival in the face of steep cuts in university print subscriptions. I am also a librarian at a university, and have been part of journal print sub gutting projects more than once. Our reps at the university press have responded to our concerns about being able to pay production costs with the argument that ‘something new is coming’ from JSTOR that will expose our content to a much larger audience and lead to increased sales. Now I see what that is. From the librarian side, I’m in harmony with all of us it seems–what. were. they. thinking. From the editorial side, I see that this will help our content turn up all over, and maybe we make some extra cash from the dupes who can’t or won’t obtain the fulltext from their libraries without the help of a link resolver.

    All of which is to say, these sorts of developments are complex, meet some needs and not others, and it really does depend what side you’re standing on how these ‘innovations’ end up looking. I don’t know what’s going to happen to journals like mine in the next ten years. We really can’t afford to print any more. We’re a small journal about radical teaching that has been around since the 1970s and seems even more vital today. But like the rest of small, outsidery magazines, our life in the absence of library subscriptions appears to be a short one. And we’re all radicals–none of us want our survival dependent on closing off access, which is what the new JSTOR interface really appears to do. It just feels like so many rocks and hard places these days. I have no idea what any of this might look like in ten, twenty years, I can’t even imagine.

  4. @Emily: “and maybe we make some extra cash from the dupes who can’t or won’t obtain the fulltext from their libraries without the help of a link resolver. ”

    Dupes? Really? Somehow, this seems like it could backfire.

  5. Ah, we wanted to subscribe to that journal once, but we were in “no new subscriptions” mode. Never got out of it; in fact we’ve hacked away at subscriptions three times in the past decade.

    Have you read Our Circulatory Systemby Jason Baird Jackson? He has an amazing figure for a tollgated journal production cost versus open access cost in that piece. I know it still wouldn’t be without cost to be OA, but it might lose less money and reach more readers.

    It seems to me this is like Google Scholar, partnering with journal publishers to index content, but unlike Google Scholar we pay for JSTOR and even so, it doesn’t help people locate the library’s content, whereas GS does.

  6. If I understand the capabilities of the new interface, it might be helpful to have three options with clearer text:

    Include links to licensed JSTOR content. (Set as default option).

    Include links to external licensed content.

    Include links to external content requiring payment or use of inter-library loan.

  7. Hello – as a first step to address the feedback and many helpful suggestions we have received, we are going to change the search default to search only content that is available as part of the collections licensed by the user’s institution. This change will apply to all search forms on the site, and we are endeavoring to complete this change by Monday, September 6. Expansion of OpenURL linking is the larger goal, but this change requires more development time. We will keep you apprised of our progress in this effort. Please see for more info.

  8. JSTOR has decided to change the default to locally owned, with the discovery part as an option until they have a way to plug into libraries’ link resolvers. So this situation is temporary. I’m glad they are being responsive. And thanks, Amy, for doing your part to articulate our concerns.

  9. @Helen You’re right, dupes is probably a harsh word, and I certainly hope it doesn’t sound like that’s how I imagine students! The new interface felt sort of like a trick to me, like it was trying to ‘dupe’ people who don’t know how to find fulltext the old fashioned way, just by searching periodical holdings into handing over more money. I don’t think of the students I work with as dupes. But I do think vendors sometimes do, and the lack of openurl in the new interface is what felt like a dirty trick to me. Though that may be an overreaction.

    @Barbara, Thanks for that link. A very useful article. There’s a lot about scholarly communication I have yet to wrap my head around.

  10. I’m thrilled to see JSTOR remove this ridiculous feature in their interface. It would be great now if someone could get Elsevier to do the same with ScienceDirect. We’ve been battling with them for months over the exact same thing. We can only afford to subscribe to one SciDir collection, Physical Sciences (which is still $12,000!). From day one, our users have been forced to see search results that included the entire SciDirect content. Since Physical Sciences is such a small percentage of their holdings, the majority of results were not available to us. This caused massive dissatisfaction on the part of both students and faculty. The Elsevier people we’ve talked to just don’t see why this would be a problem. If the voices in ACRLog could move JSTOR, maybe we can get Elsevier to wake up, as well?

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