The nearly universal assault on university library budgets has led librarians to want free scholarly journals, and every year an astonishing number of for-pay journals are cut by libraries, especially in the humanities. Nothing and no one will stop this decline, just as few associations publish their journals for free. Associations need this revenue stream to pay for operations and so they no longer talk much about open access. While journals are no longer a cash cow, but the meager revenue is sorely needed. JSTOR’s New Scholarship Program and Project Muse allowed associations to remain their own publishers, but increasingly associations, looking to do better, are running to university presses and giving up their tradition of self-publishing. Founded to self-publish for a people, not a professional association, this move is much more perilous because it involves more than money.
JSTOR and Project Muse were funded by foundations to keep the revenue flowing, but increasingly they are not successful as their business plans are being challenged by others seeking a way through the crisis. Muse boasts that its business is declining at only 5% a year, which means they should be glad they are not a publicly traded corporation because that statement would result in instant death. And JSTOR, which only recently got into the new scholarship business, is not doing well in that area. Last year, JSTOR lost two of its biggest customers, The University of California Press and the University of Chicago Press. They represented about half of their New Scholarship business. This means that JSTOR’s new scholarship program is wounded, and they are now fighting for market share with two large former allies. Don’t be surprised—this is a revolution.
This also means is that the journal battle field of different business models has expanded. It’s about the back files baby! What is clear now is that both Chicago and California believe that JSTOR’s business models for new scholarship and old scholarship were not working out for them. The JSTOR Archive had thousands of titles that shared revenue from bulk sales, and the New Scholarship model allowed libraries to buy individual titles. We at ASALH with one title could feel the problem–too little revenue from the back files and promised rise in sales from the New Scholarship Program. What is clear, both Chicago and California are saying, if we can’t find new customers in the world (their rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding) we want more money for our back files. Bye-bye JSTOR Archive. Both are trying to make subscribers to their journals pay much more than they were paying via JSTOR Archive. Chicago is charging as much for back files as current titles. And California is breaking back files into two categories recent and deep back files. They are aggressive on back files. The future of a journal, they are saying, is really its past.
Now this move to make libraries pay for old articles is not without its problems. The world has been saying the opposite since the creation of JSTOR and the rise of other “aggregators” such as Pro-quest and Ebsco-Host. Most Deep archives are available in Proquest and Ebsco-Host and will always be there because that’s how those contracts were written in the 1990s and 2000s. ASALH’s JAAH and Black History Bulletin are in those databases. They are also in JSTOR and the contract we signed years ago means they will stay in their–unless we go with Chicago and they liberate them. (Me wonders what all we are not being told in this Chicago deal because their business model is based on back files.) This wide availability of back files means that many libraries are not going to pay for them as they already have them. In fact, what the librarians tell you when they cut your journal title is that we will have to make it with the back files only. They point to ProQuest, Ebsco-Host, and JSTOR Archive and say, they are only three years behind. And they have studies that show that the most important articles do not get used until that point in time anyway!!
Now, I have not said very much about the Journal of African American in all of this because we are just one journal caught in a digital revolution. Associations with individual journals that are taking on publishers, most notably Oxford and Duke, are not making much money. The American Historical Review and the Journal of American History report minor returns in the $20,000 to $40,000 range. There is no land of milk and honey. I rather doubt that either the Chicago or California approach will benefit JAAH, but they would upset our existing relationships with JSTOR and I am convinced it will not stop the revenue slide.
Think of this digital revolution as a movie in which the question is whether the Negro will get shot and die first. I take a bit of pride in saying that over the last decade I made sure that we did not get capped in the first or second scene. And I am saying that we do not have to get capped at all if take the position that we will self-publish our journal for our own sake and will get into no unnecessary entanglements. As long as we are our own publisher, we are mobile and agile. Moreover, we are intellectually independent–and that is what we at ASALH were founded to be. We live to be wholly free with no risk of being muzzled.