A new Ithaka report, Meeting Researchers Where They Start: Streamlining Access to Scholarly Resources [thanks to Robin Sinn for the pointer], makes some observations about researcher behavior that many of us probably know, but that most of our organizations haven’t succesfully responded to yet:
- Most researchers work from off campus.
- Most researchers do not start from library web pages, but from google, the open web, and occasionally licensed platform search pages.
- More and more of researcher use is on smaller screens, mobile/tablet/touch.
The problem posed by the first two points is the difficulty in getting access to licensed resources. If you start from the open web, from off campus, and wind up at a paywalled licensed platform — you will not be recognized as a licensed user. Becuase you started from the open web, you won’t be going through EZProxy. As the Ithaka report says, “The proxy is not the answer… the researcher must click through the proxy server before arriving at the licensed content resource. When a researcher arrives at a content platform in another way, as in the example above, it is therefore a dead-end.”
Shibboleth and UI problems
Theoretically, Shibboleth federated login is an answer to some of that. You get to a licensed platform from the open web, you click on a ‘login’ link, and you have the choice to login via your university (or other host organization), using your institutional login at your home organization, which can authenticate you via Shibboleth to the third party licensed platform.
The problem here that the Ithaka report notes is that these Shibboleth federated login interfaces at our licensed content providers — are terrible.
Most of them even use the word “Shibboleth” as if our patrons have any idea what this means. As the Ithaka report notes, “This login page is a mystery to most researchers. They can be excused for wondering “what is Shibboleth?” even if their institution is part of a Shibboleth federation that is working with the vendor, which can be determined on a case by case basis by pulling down the “Choose your institution” menu.”
Ironically, this exact same issue was pointed out in the NISO “Establishing Suggested Practices Regarding Single Sign-on” (ESPReSSO) report from 2011. The ESPReSSO report goes on to not only identify the problem but suggest some specific UI practices that licensed content providers could take to improve things.
Four years later, almost none have. (One exception is JStor, which actually acted on the ESPReSSO report, and as a result actually has an intelligible federated sign-on UI, which I suspect our users manage to figure out. It would have been nice if the Ithaka report had pointed out good examples, not just bad ones. edit: I just discovered JStor is actually currently owned by Ithaka, perhaps they didn’t want to toot their own horn.).
Four years from now, will the Ithaka report have had any more impact? What would make it so?
There is one more especially frustrating thing to me regarding Shibboleth, that isn’t about UI. It’s that even vendors that say they support Shibboleth, support it very unreliably. Here at my place of work we’ve been very aggressive at configuring Shibboleth with any vendor that supports it. And we’ve found that Shibboleth often simply stops working at various vendors. They don’t notice until we report it — Shibboleth is not widely used, apparently. Then maybe they’ll fix it, maybe they won’t. In another example, Proquest’s shibboleth login requires the browser to access a web page on a four-digit non-standard port, and even though we told them several years ago that a significant portion of our patrons are behind a firewall that does not allow access to such ports, they’ve been uninterested in fixing/changing it. After all, what are we going to do, cancel our license? As the several years since we first complained about this issue show, obviously not. Which brings us to the next issue…
Relying on Vendors
As the Ithaka report notes, library systems have been effectively disintermediated in our researchers workflows. Our researchers go directly to third-party licensed platforms. We pay for these platforms, but we have very little control of them.
If a platform does not work well on a small screen/mobile device, there’s nothing we can do but plead. If a platform’s authentication system UI is incomprehensible to our patrons, likewise.
The Ithaka report recognizes this, and basically recommends that… we get serious when we tell our vendors to improve their UI’s:
Libraries need to develop a completely different approach to acquiring and licensing digital content, platforms, and services. They simply must move beyond the false choice that sees only the solutions currently available and instead push for a vision that is right for their researchers. They cannot celebrate content over interface and experience, when interface and experience are baseline requirements for a content platform just as much as a binding is for a book. Libraries need to build entirely new acquisitions processes for content and infrastructure alike that foreground these principles.
Sure. The problem is, this is completely, entirely, incredibly unrealistic.
If we were for real to stop “celebreating content over interface and experience”, and have that effected in our acquisitions process, what would that look like?
It might look like us refusing to license something with a terrible UX, even if it’s content our faculty need electronically. Can you imagine us telling faculty that? It’s not going to fly. The faculty wants the content even if it has a bad interface. And they want their pet database even if 90% of our patrons find it incomprehensible. And we are unable to tell them “no”.
Let’s imagine a situation that should be even easier. Let’s say we’re lucky enough to be able to get the same package of content from two different vendors with two different platforms. Let’s ignore the fact that “big deal” licensing makes this almost impossible (a problem which has only gotten worse since a D-Lib article pointed it out 14 years ago). Even in this fantasy land, where we say we could get the same content from two differnet platforms — let’s say one platform costs more but has a much better UX. In this continued time of library austerity budgets (which nobody sees ending anytime soon), could we possibly pick the more expensive one with the better UX? Will our stakeholders, funders, faculty, deans, ever let us do that? Again, we can’t say “no”.
edit: Is it any surprise, then, that our vendors find business success in not spending any resources on improving their UX? One exception again is JStor, which really has a pretty decent and sometimes outstanding UI. Is the fact that they are a non-profit endeavor relevant? But there are other non-profit content platform vendors which have UX’s at the bottom of the heap.
Somehow we’ve gotten ourselves in a situation where we are completely unable to do anything to give our patrons what we know they need. Increasingly, to researchers, we are just a bank account for licensing electronic platforms. We perform the “valuable service” of being the entity you can blame for how much the vendors are charging, the entity you require to somehow keep licensing all this stuff on smaller budgets.
I don’t think the future of academic libraries is bright, and I don’t even see a way out. Any way out would take strategic leadership and risk-taking from library and university administrators… that, frankly, institutional pressures seem to make it impossible for us to ever get.
Is there anything we can do?
First, let’s make it even worse — there’s a ‘technical’ problem that the Ithaka report doesn’t even mention that makes it even worse. If the user arrives at a paywall from the open web, even if they can figure out how to authenticate, they may find that our institution does not have a license from that particular vendor, but may very well have access to the same article on another platform. And we have no good way to get them to it.
Theoretically, the OpenURL standard is meant to address exactly this “appropriate copy” problem. OpenURL has been a very succesful standard in some ways, but the ways it’s deployed simply stop working when users don’t start from library web pages, when they start from the open web, and every place they end up has no idea what institution they belong to or their appropriate institutional OpenURL link resolver.
I think the only technical path we have (until/unless we can get vendors to improve their UI’s, and I’m not holding my breath) is to intervene in the UI. What do I mean by intervene?
The LibX toolbar is one example — a toolbar you install in your browser that adds instititutionally specific content and links to web pages, links that can help the user authenticate against a platform arrived to via the open web, even links that can scrape the citation details from a page and help the user get to another ‘appropriate copy’ with authentication.
The problem with LibX specifically is that browser toolbars seem to be a technical dead-end. It has proven pretty challenging to get a browser toolbar to keep working accross browser versions. The LibX project seems more and more moribund — it may still be developed, but it’s documentation hasn’t kept pace, it’s unclear what it can do or how to configure it, fewer browsers are supported. And especially as our users turn more and more to mobile (as the Ithaka report notes), they more and more often are using browsers in which plugins can’t be installed.
A “bookmarklet” approach might be worth considering, for targetting a wider range of browsers with less technical investment. Bookmarklets aren’t completely closed off in mobile browsers, although they are a pain in the neck for the user to add in many.
Zotero is another interesting example. Zotero, as well as it’s competitors including Mendeley, can succesfully scrape citation details from many licensed platform pages. We’re used to thinking of Zotero as ‘bibliographic management’, but once it’s scraped those citation details, it can also send the user to the institutionally-appropriate link resolver with those citation details — which is what can get the user to the appropriate licensed copy, in an authenticated way. Here at my place of work we don’t officially support Zotero or Mendeley, and haven’t spent much time figuring out how to get the most out of even the bibliographic management packages we do officially support.
Perhaps we should spend more time with these, not just to support ‘bibliographic management’ needs, but as a method to get users from the open web to authenticated access to an appropriate copy. And perhaps we should do other R&D in ‘bookmarklets’; in machine learning for citation parsing so users can just paste a citation into a box (perhaps via bookmarklet) to get authenticated access to appropriate copy; in anything else we can think of to:
Get the user from the open web to licensed copies. To be able to provide some useful help for accessing scholarly resources to our patrons, instead of just serving as a checkbook. With some library branding, so they recognize us as doing something useful after all.