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Guest blog: Todd Carpenter, NISO outlines the work of RA21 to simplify access

Todd CarpenterBy Todd Carpenter
Category - Blog

Wednesday 20th February 2019

Star speakers from across the information industry will share their thoughts and expertise at the annual OpenAthens one-day conference taking place on 19 March at the America Square Conference Centre, London. Hot topics will include user-centred design and experience, user consent and privacy, piracy and practical use of identity and access management.

Plenary speaker, Todd Carpenter, executive director of the National Institute of Standards Organisation (NISO), discusses the current complexities around user access to online content and the work of the RA21 initiative to help solve some of the challenges ahead of this year’s OpenAthens Conference ‘User-centred by design’.

RA21 and simplifying access

The technology that people use to connect to the internet has changed, so too must the underlying infrastructure for connecting users to subscribed content and services. Fewer and fewer people are connecting their devices physically to any particular network. In fact, the computer on which I am drafting this post does not even have an Ethernet port, nor has it ever been physically connected to any network. Users of content are also significantly more mobile than they formerly had been. In addition to working on their campus or office, users are accessing content from home, from coffee shops, from airplanes and trains, or at conference facilities.

Why IP-based access is failing users

As more people use tablets or other mobile devices for accessing content, which have mobile connectivity built in, even the notion of a stable network connection upon which one might use Internet Protocol (IP) Address authentication is falling away. These devices often roll over to mobile networks if the Wi-Fi strength diminishes, frequently without the user even noticing the network connectivity.

This instability of network connectivity makes traditional IP-based connectivity difficult to manage for those providing access and confusing for library patrons, who don’t understand access control systems and why their authentication might allow access one minute and deny access the next.

Complex user journeys and multiple points of failure

The user’s journey from discovering a resource, be it journal article, book, reference, an abstract and Indexing service, data set, or other service, to the content they want to read can be complicated. It requires nearly instantaneous communications between many disparate systems and checks on multiple data sources regarding affiliation, access points, and entitlement listings. The infrastructure for providing access via Internet Protocol (IP) addresses works reasonably well under ideal situations, but that does not mean it works perfectly all the time. It also sits apart from how most of an institution’s access control infrastructure functions.

As noted above, mobile device switching can be a problem. There are many other failure points as well, such as if a publisher turns off a proxy server because of potential fraud. Over the years, the library, publisher and software communities have done as much as possible for the interactions to be seamless and invisible. Unfortunately, this has led to a fundamental misunderstanding of the access that is provided by libraries and what problems may be causing the systems to break down.

From a user’s perspective, access was available one minute and then not available the next. Because they are not aware of why the services aren’t available, they then turn to other ways to get access, such as asking friends or colleagues, to searching preprint repositories, scholarly sharing sites like ResearchGate, or less reputable services such as SciHub.

RA21 – a community-led initiative

At its core, the RA21 initiative is built around the desire to make access control via SAML-based identity management systems, like OpenAthens, more seamless and more like the user-experience common on consumer web services.

Resource Access in the 21st Century (RA21) is a community-led initiative led by NISO, the National Information Standards Organization (US) and the International Association of STM Publishers that is developing community best practice and infrastructure to simplify connecting the library user to their institutional identity provider.

The planned RA21 service will include several elements. The first step in this process will be a linking service that provides a default identity provider lookup.  The next step will be a consistent user experience with a button to take a user to their preferred identity provider.  The third element will be a common JavaScript library that supports the button’s functionality.  This entire system will be managed by a non-profit governance body. Because of the sensitivity of the library community regarding privacy, the RA21 Recommended Practice will also include guidance on the SAML attribute release for library-related services, which is built upon the work of the identity federation community.

Adoption of recommended practice

Beyond the back-end technology, the RA21 initiative has explored several core components of the user experience, from the discovery of their identity provider to the way in which information is displayed to the library user both before they have logged in as well as after. This has built on existing work, including the NISO ESPRESSO recommended practice and work done by the identity management community. We expect that as the initiative is rolled out, the adoption of these basic rules will become more engrained in the community, especially by publishers.

What to expect at the OpenAthens Conference

Looking forward to the OpenAthens Conference in March, I will be demonstrating both the discovery layer service as well as the login experience using a test implementation of the RA21 service. It will be a pleasure to share our work with you all and hear your perspective on improving the library user experience.

Don’t miss out on what promises to be an engaging conference programme and book your place.

Header image: Photo by Mikael Kristenson on Unsplash


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