“That’s called research” — issues with access to information

For my dissertation, I have to collect the entire corpus of four separate academic journals.  One of those journals goes back to 1939, and it has 8 issues per volume. The trusty calculator app on my iPhone tells me that’s almost 600 issues, and with somewhere around 20 articles per issue (although, thankfully, there have been fewer articles in recent years as the journal became more selective), that’s a whole lot of text.

And that’s just one of the journals. There are still 3 others that I have to collect, some of them with even more articles per issue than the previously mentioned one.

But the amount of text isn’t what is currently stressing me out. I proposed this topic, and I’m excited to start going through it to collect my data. (Ok, so maybe I’m a bit daunted by the vast quantity of information, but I think that’s how it’s supposed to be, so I’m trying not to focus on that part too much.) My current stressor is the method of collecting these texts.

I’m fortunate to be able to access the entirety of two full journals (and some of the third and fourth) electronically through JSTOR. I’m also fortunate to know someone well-versed in Zotero and the art of downloading full issues from the database. With so much text to procure, downloading full issues (rather than downloading article by article) saves me literally hours and hours of time. This has made the collection of my texts much more efficient, and it allows me to get to the real work of sorting and coding my data.

After getting Zotero set up and introducing it to its new best friend, Dropbox, I basked in the glow of doing research in the tech-savvy 21st century. The basking lasted for about a half hour.

Then – after I had downloaded about 7 issues (not even one full volume) – a nasty little message popped up telling me that I had downloaded too much information from JSTOR, and my IP address was being suspended for overuse.

I’m sorry, what???

So, because I was using the database quickly and efficiently for its raison d’être – the collection of and access to texts – I was flagged.

I felt like a bad dog. I felt like I was being punished for trying to do an archival, historical research project. I felt defeated before I even began. I felt like throwing in the towel.

But I persisted. Being a researcher, I like to have as much information as I can about a topic, so I thought I’d look up the terms and conditions to see if they had a set limit to the amount that I could download in one sitting. But, because I was flagged in the system, I wasn’t even able to look those up.

So I didn’t know I wasn’t playing by the rules, and once I found out I was a rule breaker, I couldn’t even find out what the rules were. The gates were closed.

But I get it. I do. JSTOR wants to protect JSTOR and all the journals it compiles. I am fortunate to have free access to all this amazing information. And I can see how someone might try to take advantage of that access. Or, maybe I shouldn’t even call it taking advantage. There was a case a little while back where Aaron Swartz was indicted for “stealing” too many academic articles from JSTOR. Now, granted, the amount of data he downloaded was absurdly large. And, from what I’ve read, he was an activist trying to make a point about access to and circulation of information. Without getting too much into the many debates regarding hackers and ethics (ok, one small point: information wants to be free!), I will say that it is frustrating to be a researcher who loses access and ability to do the research she set out to do because of one or two extreme examples.

Last week, I attended a conference and I brought up my problem of access to a colleague. Her exasperation and surprised matched my own, prompting me to contact JSTOR to tell them, “that’s called research.”

Right now, my only recourse is to sloooowly and steadily download bits and pieces of the data I need and hope I don’t get flagged too many times. Anybody else have any issues with this sort of thing? Any suggestions about how to handle it? Venting to other people has been helpful, but that doesn’t really get me any further along the road to finishing the dissertation.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *