Inside Higher Ed: Jstor for life

By Steve Kolowich, for Inside Higher Ed

October 18, 2011

“Hours of fun await me tonight,” wrote Nicole Villeneuve, a 2009 graduate of Yale University, on Twitter. She was not speaking about a party, but she was referring to a reunion of sorts.

In a deal with Jstor, Villeneuve’s alma mater had just announced it was giving her – and all Yale alumni – free access to the academic journal archive’s catalogue.

Villeneuve’s enthusiasm was not unique. Ishaan Tharoor, a 2006 graduate, called the deal “the best thing Yale has done” for him since he left. “Nothing has made me happier all day,” tweeted Cristina Costantini, who graduated in May.

Yale is the latest of 19 institutions to provide unlimited access to Jstor to alumni through the archive’s alumni access pilot, which it opened with little fanfare in 2009. The pilot grew out of little more than speculation and a sense that offering perpetual access to the popular library resource could be a boon for the colleges’ alumni relations and generate a little extra money for Jstor. (The initial price is 10 per cent more than the institutions’ existing content licenses.)

Now, with two full years of usage data under their belts, some colleges are finding that even though many alumni no longer have to write scholarly papers, some still enjoy being able to read them.

Jstor chose a range of different types of institution for the pilot, which includes Columbia University, Smith College, the State University of New York at Buffalo, American University, and several overseas universities and theological seminaries.

“We’re trying to get a mix of institutions and find out what are the differences in how alumni use Jstor at these different institutions – and hopefully to find some different funding models,” said Bruce Heterick, vice-president for outreach services at Jstor.

Alumni usage at the pilot institutions has also varied. One elite private research university logged 90,000 visits in 2009 and almost 128,000 last year. (Citing privacy considerations, Jstor would not connect the names of pilot participation with usage data.)

However, that institution – the first to sign on to the pilot and the only one with two full years’ worth of data – is an outlier. At a smaller elite research university (about half the size of the first), alumni visited Jstor a comparatively modest 21,000 times last year. Other pilots returned lower data. One multi-campus state university, which enrols many more students than the first elite private institution, clocked 12,000 visits. One medium-sized private research institution only clocked 741 visits last year.

Heterick said it was difficult to read too much into the results, since there were a number of variables, such as how aggressively the programmes were marketed. What is certain is that there is demand for academic journals from alumni, he said. The next step, he added, will be figuring out exactly how valuable that access is for institutions, and how much it should cost them.

“Just the potential of engagement it affords me is worth the price of admission,” said William Mayer, the university librarian at American University. He called the alumni access programme “another creative way for libraries to leverage their resources as a tool for engagement with their alumni base”.

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed from an alumni happy hour, Mayer grabbed Shannon Williams, who recently graduated from a master’s programme at American. Williams said she was temping at the moment, but aspired to work in human rights and had been using Jstor approximately once a month “to keep up with articles in [her] field”.

David Carlson, dean of library affairs at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, said perpetual access to the scholarly database was a more meaningful token of having graduated from an academic institution than the other perks the alumni office sometimes arranged.

“It’s an academic benefit…rather than, say, a 10 per cent discount on Hertz rental cars,” he said.

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