From Project to Independent Organization

Kevin M. Guthrie
Executive Director
New York, New York
[email protected]

D-Lib Magazine, July/August 1997

ISSN 1082-9873

This issue of D-Lib Magazine presents a variety of digital conversion projects at various stages of their development. What are the long-term prospects for these projects and others like them? Is each project's ultimate objective simply to teach us something about the digital environment, or is it expected to play a continuing role in scholarship for the indefinite future? These are important questions to ask because the scale, scope and goals of a project -- its "mission"-- inform every aspect of how it is conceived and how it should develop. Some projects have limited and defined objectives and thus are expected to exist for a similarly limited duration. Others may require extended periods of support in order to reach their goals. And still others, like JSTOR, need to develop ways to become self-sustaining if they are to reach their full potential. The purpose of this brief article is to provide an update on JSTOR as a work-in-progress and to illustrate key issues that arise for research projects that attempt to make the transition to self-sustainability. (For an earlier report on JSTOR, see JSTOR: An IP Practitioner's Perspective, written by Sarah Sully, JSTOR's General Counsel and Director of Publisher Relations, which appeared in the January 1997 issue of D-Lib.)


JSTOR [www.jstor.org] began its existence as a grant program of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation [www.mellon.org]. Its original purpose was to investigate whether it was possible to increase access to older scholarly materials by converting them to digital media while simultaneously insuring their preservation and saving library shelf space. Older journals were chosen because of their research value and the fact that they take up substantial space in many academic and research libraries.

Like other projects of its type, JSTOR began its existence housed in an academic environment. In the summer of 1994, the Mellon Foundation selected the University of Michigan to receive a grant to extend the work it had done as part of the TULIP project. A technological infrastructure was built that joined bit-mapped images to text files to allow both faithful display of the original material and full searchability. While the system was being developed, a limited number of colleges and universities served as test sites. Although there were problems and setbacks in those early days, it was evident that the concept was both too promising and too complex to continue to be managed as a grant program of the Foundation. In the summer of 1995, JSTOR was established as an independent not-for-profit organization to carry forward the original objectives of the grant.

Because the Mellon Foundation had no intention of subsidizing the new organization indefinitely, JSTOR was expected to develop an economic model that would allow it to become self-sustaining. On January 1, 1997, JSTOR began making available to libraries its database of the complete runs of important scholarly journals.

The first phase of JSTOR will include a total of 100 journals in 10-15 fields, primarily in the social sciences and humanities. These 100 titles will be fully converted and available within three years. As part of the economic plan established to recover the costs of creating and maintaining this resource, participating libraries are being asked to contribute a one-time database development fee ranging from $10,000 to $40,000 and annual access fees ranging from $2,000 to $5,000. Large research institutions make more substantial contributions than smaller colleges. To reward those institutions willing to help get the entity launched, a special charter discount was offered to libraries that made commitments prior to April 1, 1997. By the end of the three-month charter period, a remarkable 198 institutions had signed on to participate in the JSTOR project, a promising first step on the path toward self-sufficiency.

The Importance of Mission

Since, by definition, any research or not-for-profit project is not driven by standard marketplace measures like profit or return on investment, it is critically important to define very clearly the mission of the endeavor. The mission must be understandable and realistically achievable. It establishes not only the broad strategic direction for the project, but it also serves as a touchstone to help chart a course through myriad detailed daily decisions. It literally informs everything that is done. Unfortunately, measuring whether a project is fulfilling its mission is often not directly quantifiable, so special effort must be made to define objectives and expected outcomes against which progress can be assessed.

The mission manifests itself in the creation and definition of those objectives and expected outcomes, which, in turn, guide the daily activities of an organization. In the case of JSTOR, our broad mission is to help the scholarly community take advantage of advances in information technologies. Obviously, that broad definition alone does not provide a sufficiently narrow framework to define our work. Our more specific initial objective is to develop and make accessible a trusted electronic archive of core journal literature, emphasizing the conversion of the entire journal runs back to their first issues. In one respect, this goal is extremely ambitious; it means that JSTOR must be here tomorrow and into the future, a fact that has legal, technical and economic implications. In order to have a realistic chance for success, we realized very early on that we could not do everything, that the ambition inherent in our hopes for sustainability had to be balanced by a disciplined definition of the territory we could cover. Although libraries have many different types of materials that might benefit from digital conversion, we have maintained our original and relatively narrow focus on the back files of core scholarly journals.

A second defining aspect of JSTOR's mission is that it must benefit all stakeholders in the field of scholarly communication. If JSTOR is to be a continuing success, it must appeal to libraries, publishers and researchers. This commitment to taking a system-wide perspective has also played a central role in guiding decision-making on issues large and small.

Defining the Service or Product

One of the first difficult issues that must be addressed in any digital conversion project concerns the selection of appropriate formats and technologies for storage, display and distribution of the material. Although most projects are committed to the Internet now, that choice was not so obvious in JSTOR's early days, and it was difficult then to decide whether the delivery mechanism should be CD-ROM or the Internet. Another difficult question, which many other projects are now facing, was what file format (images, PDF, SGML, HTML, etc.) should be used to deliver the content. These questions and others like them can be almost paralyzing without some overarching structure to inform the decisions, and, in some cases, to help make compromises and balance trade-offs. There is often no right answer.

JSTOR's choices of technology have flowed directly from its mission. Because it is our goal to save money in the long-run for libraries, it is essential that the storage of the database be centralized, with distribution taking place via the Internet. Delivering the database via CD-ROM would simply add material to thousands of libraries that librarians would have to store and preserve for future patrons. It is far more economical to pool resources and store one or a few copies (at mirror sites) of the material and distribute it electronically. Nevertheless, relying on the Internet does result in tradeoffs. For example, there is a limit to the size of the file one can expect a user to download over congested network links. Because of that limitation, it may not be possible to offer very high resolution color or greyscale images. That is one reason that JSTOR is not converting art history journals during Phase I of the project. Such compromises are difficult, but they are easier to make when they are necessary to fulfill central aspects of one's mission.

Another decision which we analyzed extremely carefully was whether to store and deliver the JSTOR materials as images or text. In the end, we decided to use the best of both images and text, and once again, our mission served to guide us in making that decision. (For a more complete summary of the issues surrounding this decision, see Why Images?.) First, because our focus is on offering a faithful replication of previously published materials, delivering the content in image format is essential. Given the technology available to web browsers, the most accurate way to replicate completely the originally published material, which is full of special characters, foreign languages, mathematical symbols, charts and pictures, is with scanned images. In addition, our commitment to make the material more accessible to scholars led us to use Optical Character Recognition software to build a corresponding text file that would allow the user to search the full-text of the journals in the database.

Some people have suggested that JSTOR should make these text files available to users. Here, the economic realities of JSTOR's mission pose another constraint. Reaching back to the first issue of every journal means that JSTOR is converting millions of pages of information. Combined with the fact that JSTOR must establish a self-sustaining economic model, it is only feasible to correct the text file up to an accuracy level that is satisfactory for searching, but not for display. That is why we have taken this combination approach, where images are used for display and for printing, and text files are used for searching. Once again, these decisions are not easy to make, but they are framed by the overarching goals of the enterprise.


If a project has economic self-sufficiency as an objective, a decision must be made as to how its costs will be recovered. If some form of user fee or contribution is anticipated, setting prices becomes an enormously important and complicated issue. Addressing in detail how JSTOR set prices for access to the database is beyond the scope of this brief article, but decisions on the key parameters, such as whether to offer different prices for different classes of participants, were once again guided by a mission-oriented perspective.

As a not-for-profit organization, JSTOR's pricing is not driven by a desire to price at "what the market will bear." One of our primary goals is to make access to JSTOR available to as many institutions and users as possible. From the beginning, our pricing has reflected that objective. JSTOR did not start out with a single price for all participants; rather, we chose a value-based pricing approach that seeks to match the amount institutions contribute to the value they will receive from participation. By offering different prices for different classes of institutions, we aimed to establish pricing that would distribute the costs of the endeavor in a fair way over as many institutions -- and types of institutions -- as possible.

Once we decided to offer JSTOR at a variety of price levels, a key challenge was determining an objective measure to be used for price classification. This is yet another question with no correct answer. Other measures being used by content providers establish prices based on student enrollment, on the number of faculty, or on the size of the library serials budget. JSTOR uses The Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education for pricing purposes. Our reason for choosing the Carnegie Classes was the fact that these groupings reflect an assessment of the institutions' commitment to research. Because JSTOR stores and provides access to core scholarly journal material, much of which would be most useful (and therefore most highly valued) at research institutions, the Carnegie Classification system offers a structure that most closely matches our objectives. In addition to using the Carnegie classes, JSTOR factors in the FTE enrollment of each institution, making adjustments that move institutions with smaller enrollments into classes with lower price levels.

Relying on the Carnegie Classification did not, however, provide a solution for all types of pricing problems. There is a growing trend in the academic community toward consortial purchasing of digital resources. The fact that JSTOR does not offer special consortial discounts has proven to be a disappointment to the leaders of that movement. Not surprisingly, the same forces that have spurred consortial purchasing of digital content; namely, the development of technologies to distribute massive amounts of information over networks, are also what make JSTOR possible. It is no longer necessary to have original materials on-hand in order to read them. One consequence of this development is that marginal costs of distribution are small and thus the economies of scale are substantial. Therein lies the conflict between JSTOR and consortia; these benefits have already been taken into account in JSTOR's economic model and, as mentioned previously, price levels were established to encourage maximum participation from the community. To offer further discounts could put JSTOR's viability, and with it the potential benefits of the project to the scholarly community, at risk.

A second complication inherent in the consortial trend is that the distribution of organizations in consortia has not stabilized, particularly in the United States. Many institutions are in multiple consortia while some are in none at all (although there are few of those left). If there were five consortial groups representing every higher education institution in the U.S., a project like JSTOR could divide its projected costs by five and a fair contribution could be made by all. But that is not the case. With an almost infinitely complicated patchwork of consortial membership around the country, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to establish prices that will be regarded as fair by participants. JSTOR's commitment to share as much of what it learns with the community as possible requires that there be no special deals, that we be open about the contributions institutions make and the reasons for their making them. Our economic model would not be sustainable if two very similar institutions contributed different amounts simply because one were part of a consortium that drove a harder bargain.

Helping the Scholarly Community

Although broad in definition, the goal to help the scholarly community does inform our strategic choices. Even as JSTOR has made the transition from project to going concern, it has continued to work closely with academic institutions to provide certain services. The University of Michigan continues to play an important role, as does Princeton University. Staff at Michigan working exclusively on JSTOR are responsible for the conversion of journal content as well as user support services and a portion of software development. The database itself is housed on servers at Michigan and is mirrored at Princeton, where a software development team also works on extending JSTOR's capabilities. We believe this commitment to work closely with academic institutions benefits the scholarly community in a variety of ways. For one, lessons learned from the project are more rapidly communicated to other projects and institutions because the work is being done in the academic community. In addition, students and staff at these institutions benefit from the experience of working directly with the project. Many of the most interesting lessons emerge from the practical daily struggles associated with providing a service and being held accountable for it.

Like the other JSTOR decisions described above, taking this approach has not been without its difficulties. Sometimes the goals of universities and the goals of projects like JSTOR can diverge. JSTOR now has promises to keep and paying participants that have a right to demand high levels of performance. Because of that fact, JSTOR requires a certain amount of control over the activities of those who are working on the project. Finding an organizational model that accommodates the needs and obligations of both JSTOR and its host institutions is not trivial and is a matter of continuing discussion.


Not all projects have as their objective to become permanent self-sustaining organizations. Nevertheless, one lesson that emerges from JSTOR's transition from research project to independent organization is that a careful and clear definition of a project's mission provides invaluable guidance for making the many difficult decisions that arise in this highly dynamic environment.

Copyright © 1997 Kevin M. Guthrie

Magazine |  Current Issue | Comments
Previous Story | Next Story