Does Project Muse help or harm scholarship by refusing to list freely available journals? On the role of the aggregator

Yesterday, I posted an essay reflecting on the stratification of content development and delivery processes in the music, commercial publishing, and scholarly and scientific publishing industries (Won’t Get Fooled Again).

At the end of the piece, I discussed the developing role of aggregators at the distribution and marketing end of the process. While there is no equivalent to iTunes in the scholarly publishing world, the aggregators fill a similar function to a certain extent with the institutional customers (particularly libraries) that are responsible for most of the purchases in this area.

Project Muse

One of these aggregators is Project Muse, which describes itself as “a not-for-profit collaboration with the goal of disseminating quality scholarship via a sustainable model that meets the needs of both libraries and publishers” (History). Claiming to have been “designed by the academic community, for the academic community” MUSE suggests that “through innovation and collaborative development, Project MUSE anticipates the needs of and delivers essential resources to all members of the scholarly community” (Index). The collection as a whole is said to be highly selective: it contains “well-established journals which are widely indexed and widely held… [and] more specialized, less widely held journals… in order to provide depth and synergy in specific higher priority fields” (Policy). There is even a policy for supporting newer titles that have yet to establish themselves, but show great promise.

Two classes of journals, however, are not eligible for inclusion in MUSE: “journals published by for-profit companies,” and “journals which are freely available online.” As MUSE explains, its policy against commercially published journals “stems from… [its] mission, part of which is to help non-profit publishers and independent journals continue to provide affordable content to scholars and libraries.” Its policy against freely available journals, on the other hand, comes from the fact that it “does not want to charge its library customers for content that they can get for free elsewhere on the Internet.”

At first glance, these two exclusions seem quite reasonable and, in their emphasis on giving a leg up to not-for-profit publishers and helping libraries avoid unnecessary spending, perhaps even noble.

In practice, however, the policies work against the interests of the community MUSE hopes to serve. By refusing to collect freely available journals and excluding commercially published titles, MUSE creates what is in effect a cartel for University Presses and not-for-profit scholarly societies. By privileging a fee-based subscription model, moreover, it restricts rather than promotes innovation in precisely the sector of the industry that is facing the greatest challenges to its existing business model.

How excluding freely available journals hurts the MUSE community

The case against its exclusion of freely available journals is probably the easiest to make. In addition to functioning as an aggregator, MUSE also claims to act as a vetting service. As MUSE points out, it collects only a small fraction of the titles available to it. Its collection consists of “High quality, peer-reviewed, stable content… written by the most prestigious authors and scholars in their fields” (Index).  It “prefers to add well-established journals which are widely indexed and widely held” but is open to “more specialized, less widely held journals… in order to provide depth and synergy in specific higher priority fields” (Policy). And it has what is in effect a mentorship programme for less well-established titles, provided they have solid support and editorial boards.

One result of this focus on quality and stability is that inclusion in MUSE is a mark of prestige. In addition to increasing their exposure, MUSE also provides the titles it collects with what is in effect an endorsement of their importance and editorial quality. The fact that a journal is not being distributed by MUSE does not necessarily mean it is of poor quality (though of course in some cases it does). But the fact that a title is distributed by MUSE does mean that it is.

This kind of certification is of obvious importance to journals that are published by smaller societies and presses whose importance might otherwise go unrecognised. And it is even more important for journals that are not published by a press or society at all, or, as is increasingly common, journals that are published by such presses or societies on an Open Access basis.

Certification is an economic good

In fact, this vetting process is so important that it represents an economic good in its own right. By using this rigorous criteria to build its collection, MUSE is acting, intentionally or not, as a type of certification body (for the often unintended consequences of such processes, see “When everyone’s super“). And in much the same way that consumers will pay a premium in order to have a Certification Body certify that their food is Organic or their management practices are ISO compliant, so too consumers, or in this case libraries, will almost certainly be willing to pay for a certification service that provides them with a single point of access to high-quality scholarly journals, whatever their source or business model. By excluding high quality, free access journals from its collections on the basis of their business model. however, MUSE not only (at best) fails to support an important segment of the not-for-profit scholarly publishing industry, but also actually increases the library collection costs it has suggested it wants to reduce: libraries that want to include free-access journals are forced to devoted their own resources to acquiring this material or purchase it from commercial aggregators like Gale and EBSCO that are willing to carry such titles.

Insisting on fee-based subscription stifles creativity

The policy against free journals also potentially hurts the industry segment MUSE is mandated to support by stifling creativity. As a mushrooming number of initiatives, conference sessions, books, and articles attest, the scholarly publishing industry (profit and not-for-profit) is in the midst of a massive transformation. There is as yet no clear consensus as to what the best business model in the new digital environment will be, and certainly none that a subscription-based model will remain the best way for non-profit publishers to distribute scholarly content. By refusing all freely available journals access to its collection, MUSE presumably also discourages the subscription-based journals it does collect from experimenting with novel approaches to distribution, some of which may involve eliminating fees altogether (an approach funding agencies are in fact increasingly encouraging journals to take).

What about for-profit journals?

The case against excluding for-profit journals is more difficult to make, in part because the ability to include such journals depends on the willingness of commercial houses to allow them to be distributed according to MUSE’s non-profit business model. To the extent that is possible to get such publishers to agree to this, however, excluding them on the basis of their sponsors tax category is as open to the problem of unintended consequences as the ban on free-access journals. Commercial titles that agreed to MUSE’s terms in this scenario would be distributed on exactly the same basis as the not-for-profit titles it currently collects, meaning by definition that the commercial houses would have no competitive advantage over the non-profit ones. And by providing an alternative route to access high quality commercial journals on the same terms as not-for-profit titles, MUSE would also be helping its community address the currently unsustainably high costs associated with journal acquisition.

I suspect at the moment it would be quite hard to get commercial presses to agree to MUSE’s distribution terms. But by banning both free access and for-profit journals from its collection, MUSE fails to take full advantage of what, increasingly, may prove to be its primary competitive advantage in relation to other aggregation services: the quality of its curation. Although we do not know how the current crisis in publishing will play out, it seems that curation will remain a high-value service. Organisations that offer customers certifiably high quality content will almost certainly retain some ability to charge for this service, even if the content itself, in uncurated form, is freely available elsewhere.


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