Skip to content

JSTOR and leading students astray

August 22, 2011

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 historyExamples 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?

  1. August 22, 2011 13:08

    Before someone points it out to me, I’ll point it out first: MPOW is guilty of being a JSTOR pusher, too:

    The second link is for Peace Studies. I would certainly hope that there is more recent research on peace than can be found in JSTOR!

  2. Matt permalink
    August 22, 2011 13:52

    The fact that so many post-secondary students are “clueless” about libraries and the role of librarians seems, to me, to be more of an indictment of their previous 13 years of school than anything else.

    What gets me is that Google is sort of demonized in these hell-in-a-handbasket lamentations about today’s students. Google’s search is too simple and creates false expectations of the research process! No boolean operators! Why aren’t there facets? This is ruining education!

    I think students and librarians alike place way too much importance on Google. It’s a tool for searching websites in the most brain-dead way possible. It uses a bunch of complicated ranking algorithms and heuristics to try to give you the most *relevant* results, not necessarily the *best* results. This is the trade-off: you’re getting quick, easy info at the cost of accuracy and reliability. Stated another way: Google is not designed for researching academic papers. But it’s freakin’ great for looking up the lyrics to Inna Gadda Da Vida or figuring out who that actor was that played Number Two in the Austin Powers movies.

    Society advances by automating and abstracting things. This is why we’re not all working in factories, farming, or performing hard manual labour. This is why we write most software in Java or C# and not assembly. It enables our information society. The downside is that people can coast along more and more without thinking, which can be a really attractive option. Tools like Google cater to this, so it’s the absolute wrong place to look for serious academic work.

    So after 18 years of don’t-make-me-think culture and an apparently inadequate public school system, we expect students to come to university with research skills that are anything better than abysmal? Is it coincidence Google and JSTOR are numbers one and two, respectively, and both have simple, memorable, two-syllable names?

    • August 22, 2011 14:28

      You need Google to tell you that Robert Wagner played Number Two? Oops, I think it shows my age (badly) that I recognize him by face since I so loved Hart to Hart when I was a kid. There, I said it.

      Your point about the failures of schools in this regard is well made. Whether working in the US, Germany, or now Canada, I see repeatedly that faculty think students should learn and are learning how to find and process information while still in school. It’s certainly not happening, but I wonder if it ever did, and we only see it now because it’s so easily exposed.

      Brilliant point, by the way, about the names. That had completely escaped me, but it certainly must have a grain of truth to it. Given what you wrote it occurs to me that the one discipline where JSTOR most often features as a “key database” is history, where the flagship database flies under a cumbersome name if ever there were one: American: History & Life / Historical Abstracts. Not only does it have two names (based loosely, and jingoistically, on scope, where America = the US and Canada; take that, South and Central Americans!), but they have punctuation in them as well as terms such as abstracts, which just flummox people. What do you want to bet that their usage would skyrocket if they would merge the two sides of the database and market it as “Historia” or something goofy like that?

    • INTPLibrarian permalink
      August 22, 2011 19:18

      Just FYI, Google DOES have Boolean operators if you want to use them.

      Another thing Google is very good at: Finding the right citation from a citation with a typo. Google Scholar has helped many an ILL Librarian, I’m sure.

      • August 23, 2011 09:19

        Many thanks for your comment. Not sure where or how I implied that Google does not use operators, but at any rate, I’m an experienced and skilled Google searcher, not least since I administered a Google Search Appliance for several years at a former employer. Google’s search technology–for those that know how to exploit it–is indeed granular and fault tolerant, things from which we could well learn.

      • espressohound permalink
        February 15, 2013 07:34

        Dale, I think you DID NOT imply that Google hasn’t any boolean operators. You were responding positively to someone (Matt) who seemed to waffle on Google’s attributes as a search tool. He said

        `What gets me is that Google is sort of demonized in these hell-in-a-handbasket lamentations about today’s students. Google’s search is too simple and creates false expectations of the research process! No boolean operators! Why aren’t there facets? This is ruining education!’

        When I read this, I thought Matt left out some punctuation. Specifically, it seemed to me that he meant something more like the following:

        `What gets me is that Google is sort of demonized in these hell-in-a-handbasket lamentations about today’s students: “Google’s search is too simple and creates false expectations of the research process! No boolean operators! Why aren’t there facets? This is ruining education!”‘

        But he then goes on to describe Google as not a valuable academic search tool, suggesting that it is instead meant for finding trivial information:

        `Stated another way: Google is not designed for researching academic papers. But it’s freakin’ great for looking up the lyrics to Inna Gadda Da Vida or figuring out who that actor was that played Number Two in the Austin Powers movies.’

        In fact, for mathematicians and scientists in narrow research specialties, Google is a fantastic research tool. For would you please tell me where you would begin to look for information on “metrics defined using discrepancy functions”?

  3. August 22, 2011 17:59

    The simple answer for all of the examples that you posted is that the resources are listed in alphabetical order. The software powering the subject guides or web pages might not have the ability to order the listed databases in any other way.

    • August 23, 2011 09:27

      You’re kind to point this out, Dan. You are correct that in each case the order of the “featured databases” appears to be alphabetical, and I’ve run up against this issue before. Two things come to mind in this regard:

      – If the tool requires alphabetical order, it’s a broken tool, because we all know that the first thing on the list is the most likely to be clicked, so we’re leaving database choice up to a system limitation. This is one instance where static HTML trumps an automatically assembled list that lacks weighting options. Compare these examples from K-State for their list of literature databases (where the MLA really has no realistic peers):

      static HTML
      new WordPress db of databases

      The static pages are made up of Dreamweaver library items and thus can be ordered arbitrarily, hence the more sensible order.

      – Even if the list has to be alphabetical, the inclusion of JSTOR among the most important databases is dubious, not least when the alpha order leads to it being the first. If the tool is broken, it needs to be gamed to give better results. For example, in the case of a field where one database really is the clear choice (as in history, literature, philosophy, etc.), then it should be the only one listed in such a scenario.

  4. Andrys Onsman permalink
    August 24, 2011 10:53

    To Dale and all who contributed to this: thanks for making me think about something I hadn’t thought about before. I confess to using google scholar & jstor more glibly than perhaps I ought and being happy enough with it. And I do use it as a starting point for serious research. The comment about finding citations is spot on for overworked underpaid academics. And finally, does In a Gadda da Vida actually have lyrics?? Cheers, Andrys

    • August 24, 2011 10:59

      Glad you stopped by, Andrys. It must have lyrics of some sort!

  5. September 12, 2011 05:07

    Have you ever considered about including a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is valuable and everything. But just imagine if you added some great graphics or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”! Your content is excellent but with pics and video clips, this blog could undeniably be one of the very best in its field. Great blog!

  6. Jim Campbell permalink
    October 12, 2011 18:15


    I’m coming late to this party, but a few comments anyway.

    When I ask students why they go to JSTOR the answer is almost invariably that a professor told them to. The single biggest factor in the rise of JSTOR was probably their decision to use a chunk of their Mellon money to attend every scholarly meeting they could find. They established themselves as a brand.

    Yes, Google is also a brand, but this discussion doesn’t reflect that it is a brand with several products. It’s really not fair to lump Google Scholar and Google Books in with the basic product. Faculty and graduate students often do differentiate, undergraduates more often do not. For example, I was impressed last year with a group of grad students who were routinely using Google Books to identify hidden content, chapters and essays in collections, that dealt with their research topics.

    And that’s really the key point in the popularity of JSTOR and the Googles. Unlike America: History and Life they offer full text searching. If you’re looking into Jefferson’s views on libraries, you might overlook the titles that discuss his thoughts on encouraging better farming and the indexers probably didn’t pull out the library aspect anyway, but you can get it yourself in a full text search.

    • October 13, 2011 09:39

      Thanks for chiming in, Jim. Your point about JSTOR’s effective marketing is well taken. They chose a memorable name and imprinted it into many brains.

      Agreed that one must be specific when discussing Google products. I also agree with your observation that graduate students often know the differences and appreciate them, while undergraduates nearly never do. Faculty are in my experience a very mixed bunch. Some are right there with the most progressive grad students, while others are still so Googlephobic that they can’t be bothered to do any serious investigating. Were they to do so, they might be surprised, as those of us who took the plunge long ago likely once were, how effective Google’s tools are when stacked up against some of their “classic” resources.

  7. espressohound permalink
    February 15, 2013 07:18

    Actually, in some subjects, JSTOR is a fantastic place for students to start their research. In mathematics, for example, some topics that have not seen significant development in decades are the hardest problems, and are the ones which will garner the most accolades for a student and his/her adviser, should they some them. For many such problems, very good expository articles are available in JSTOR from long ago, and in some cases, this is exactly where the talented students should begin their studies. Another useful resource, is of course the Mathematical Reviews, accessible via many universities’ subscription to MathSciNet, and in many cases, the only papers with reviews that indicate to a student that the paper is of value to their particular project are papers that are old enough to be indexed by and archived by JSTOR.


  1. What students don’t know – Library Central

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: