JSTOR and leading students astray
An August 22nd article in Inside Higher Ed confirms what anyone working with students in academic libraries at least suspects: students have incredibly poor information searching habits. I look forward to reading more about the research done in Illinois. One particularly distressing point from the summary worth highlighting is that JSTOR “was the second-most frequently alluded-to database [n.b.- behind only Google] in student interviews.”
JSTOR is a wonderful resource for what it does best: making backruns of journals available back across the decades. Nowadays this seems like a normal thing to do, what with Google scanning everything it can, but when JSTOR started this was like manna from heaven for many researchers and students.
What JSTOR clearly is not, however, is a good starting point for students doing research. Why that is so should be obvious: for most JSTOR journals, the most recent years are not in the database. While JSTOR is slowly adding current content for specific journals through its Current Scholarship Program, only ~200 of the 1,400 JSTOR journals offer current content via the JSTOR interface.
Even today, as a full text storehouse, JSTOR is a goldmine, albeit one best accessed not by direct searching, but via a pointer from another resource that includes current content. Why, then, have librarians and faculty persisted in suggesting it to their students as a starting point? That’s a vexing question, but having argued with colleagues about this for years, I would ascribe it to, among other reasons, a traditional approach to research that assumes that students will consult multiple sources. We should know better.
To drive the point home, here are some visual examples. The example at the top of this post comes from Kansas State University, which lists JSTOR as the most important database for political science, quite a feat of irony. In the field of philosophy, the University of Kansas lists JSTOR before The Philosopher’s Index while the University of Washington considers it among the six most critical for history. Examples like this abound on library Web pages. Do we actually think students will notice that their JSTOR results lack research from the most recent five to seven years or so? Shouldn’t that matter? Moreover, the lack of current content is only one of JSTOR’s shortcomings as a place to do topical research. Its distinct amero- and anglocentrism as well as a somewhat elitist collection of journals (good business strategy but not academically sound) should be noted.
One should really question whether JSTOR even belongs on the list of databases the library offers. It’s a critical part of our information offerings, but for the overwhelming majority of users, it should never be their starting point for research. Why then, does JSTOR feature so prominently on library Websites?