Lowering the Barrier to Academic Databases

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Doing research has always been a difficult endeavor for independent curators and arts historians. Outside the aegis of an academic institution, access to scholarly articles has traditionally been prohibitively expensive. A day’s worth of access to a single article on the Oxford Art Journal, for instance, can cost as much as $35. Ordering a back issue of a journal from the University of Chicago Press can cost you $72. Even a nominally free database, like the Getty Resource Portal, often points to articles that are locked behind a paywal.

There are a good number of free or low-cost resources available online. Yale University Library lists a variety of free databases on art and art history, and the Asia Art Archive is fully available online. Now, there are some legitimate and not so legitimate reasons for academic journals being so expensive, and it’s fair that journal editors be paid a fair wage for their work. But if you’re doing a deep dive of research, accessing journals adds up, and it’s rare to be able to bill for those costs. Meanwhile, the hard work of art historians and writers remains inaccessible to the general public.

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed to a new service from JSTOR, one of the premiere databases of scholarly journals. JPASS, as the service is known, opens the door to 1,500 journals through a library card-like plan. Users on the system can download up to 10 articles a month, which are stored on their account and can be accessed even if the pass has expired. The cost? Only $19.50 per month, with discounts available for members of Register & Read, a free access program JSTOR launched last year.

JSTOR was a central figure in the story of Aaron Swartz, who faced federal charges for the way he accessed articles on the site, and the company follows in a trend amongst academic institutions to open up their research for public consumption. The Board of Governors of California Community Colleges recently decided that any research funded by them should be made available under a Creative Commons license. And just a few months prior, the entire University of California system had gone open access, meaning full articles are available at no charge. Although, as one Berkeley professor pointed out, participation in the open access system is voluntary, and only one journal of art is currently available, it’s still a step in the right direction.

As more institutions, journals and databases open up, the more we can hope scholarship improves. Like creativity, great scholarship means making unexpected connections and building one’s knowledge base. The less academic material is locked down, the easier it will be for arts researchers to get their job done.

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