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If You Could See It From the Front: Opening Access to the Back Catalog

JSTOR has stumbled into one of the best working solutions for providing access for non-affiliated users to access the backlog of scholarly content. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great starting point. (861 words / November 15, 2023)

Published onNov 15, 2023
If You Could See It From the Front: Opening Access to the Back Catalog

New articles are published annually. Of these, some go out into the world as open access and the rest are stowed behind a paywall. Each year, the share of open access articles becomes bigger and the share of paywalled articles becomes smaller; however, the number of paywalled articles has built up over many decades and is very large. Demand for articles is greatest in the first year of publication, so the problem of access for the back catalog feels less immediate. But it’s an issue nonetheless and it requires our thinking.

JSTOR has stumbled into one of the best working solutions for providing access to non-affiliated users to the backlog of scholarly content. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great starting point

JSTOR began a program called Register & Read in January 2012 which let non-institutional users create an account and read six free articles every 30 days. The program began with 76 publishers, including the American Historical Association and CAA. As many as 150,000 users signed up during the pilot and more than 700 publishers joined the next year.

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, JSTOR increased the number of free articles from 6 to 100. This was on a temporary six month basis, which they then extended for another six months. As of today, non-affiliated users who create a JSTOR account are still able to access 100 free articles every 30 days. For comparison, free registered users can read 10 articles per month on the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and 20 articles on the Washington Post.

Dimensions still classifies most of JSTOR as closed access, but according to JSTOR support, about 85% of the JSTOR archive is now available for free online reading. So while most JSTOR content lacks an open license and requires the creation of an account, unaffiliated researchers who want to read scholarly text are able to do so freely.

On a similar note, the Journal of Visceral Surgery recently announced that they would begin providing free access to its archive, which dates back to 2010. This journal is one of 140 journals listed as participating in Elsevier’s Open Archive program which provides free delayed access to articles after an embargo. This program has been live since at least 2012, when Journal of Pure and Applied Algebra announced it would begin to allow free reading access to articles after a four year embargo. Four years is a long wait for embargoed Elsevier titles, but users don’t need to create a trackable account to access content as they do in the JSTOR program.

Content in these programs is free for readers, but none of the content is openly licensed and its free status depends on the continued good will of the publishers. This privilege could end tomorrow with no notice. Open licenses would help to mitigate that precarity of access. But the common routes to getting that open licensing are not yet sufficient to address the back catalog.

  • Subscribe-to-Open does not require fees for authors or readers on content during years when subscription thresholds are met, but part of what is supposed to entice continued subscription, however, is steady access to paywalled back content.

  • Editors and boards leaving a journal in protest to start new no- or low-fee open access titles does nothing to open the back content of the journal they departed. (Opening back content should be included as part of editors’ future negotiations.)

  • NERL’s Backflip model does open the back catalog, but like ‘publish’ deals,  is limited to papers affiliated with the institutions that are able to negotiate such a deal.

  • Institutional ‘publish’ deals are limited by institutional affiliation (in ways that do not promote an equitable landscape), and are focused on new content over the back catalog.

  • Green archival (pre-ACS) has largely been seen as a free route to make works open, but is heavily dependent on author action, which leads to many papers remaining closed.

It is often viewed as a downside that publishers require authors to sign over copyright because it puts control over the published papers in the single hand of the publisher. But if one’s objective is to make as many papers as possible available for free, it may be simpler (if not easier) to negotiate with one single (perhaps huge) copyright holder than with many individual copyright holders (including authors who can either not be convinced or contacted). The trick, then, convincing these single copyright holders.

How to convince publishers to run such programs? To include more titles? To get the articles of those titles openly-licensed? The answer to all of these is to pay them. There is room to work here. Elsevier and JSTOR have chosen to run these (limited) free access programs without any extra action or payment required from their primary customer, libraries. If libraries said they wanted to see more of this and were willing to pay, I think publishers could be convinced. The most pressing question is whether or not libraries would want to see more of this.


This post appeared originally on LinkedIn at


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