Twenty-five years on – enabling access to knowledge

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OpenAthens is marking its milestone birthday with a range of celebratory activities over the coming months which will recognise the contribution of its staff, customers and partners. The UK-based not-for-profit is now a market-leading global access management organisation. Employing 53 staff from its head office, its technology is used by more than 2,600 organisations across multiple sectors, in more than 70 countries.

In its early years, OpenAthens was one of the first organisations to provide electronic access to library databases. The team working on the project spotted its potential for use by other educational institutions. In a few years, it had been adopted by universities across the UK. Our aim back then still stands today – we want to make access to knowledge as simple as possible. But 25 years later we are still facing some of the same challenges. 

We must ask ourselves, as an industry, what is stopping us from consistently delivering access management solutions that are simple and coherent for our end-users?  

Technology

Single sign-on technology has evolved significantly since our software was first developed in 1995 at the University of Bath to provide access to the National Information Services and Systems and Bath Information and Data Service. 

Over the past 25 years, access to knowledge, and the technology used in the sector has advanced and benefited those who need quick access to journals and knowledge resources. Different access technologies of varying technical capability were developed. For many years, IP-proxy was the access method of choice, because it just about works for remote access if most of your learners are on campus. 

Similar to a Bic biro pen that does not do much more than provide ink to write with, proxy access provides the basics, but does not solve today’s complex access issues. Yes it’s a low-cost option, but at what cost? There are known security issues around the use of IP-based access, and with more people now working or studying from home, it’s also not a sustainable or scalable option. During the pandemic we have heard many reports of proxy-based access falling over because the underlying infrastructure could not meet the growing demand for remote access.

The problem we face now is that if organisations continue to use this outdated access method, they will fall behind. Proxy access is simply not reliable enough for how organisations will operate going forward. 

Single sign-on technology has advanced rapidly and is slowly but surely replacing IP and proxy-based access. And while the technology and the publishing and library sectors have undergone massive changes over the last couple of decades, the basic goals remain the same. 

We remain dedicated to removing barriers to knowledge and creating access to quality content for as many people as possible, while protecting that same content from misuse. Our technology offers a better user experience, security, and insight into analytics that is compliant with privacy laws and ethics around data use. What we have learned over the past 25 years is that the deployment and delivery of this technology must continually improve to meet the future needs of our customers, and to integrate with the other standards-based systems and processes they engage with. This will enable everyone to use federated single sign-on technology consistently. 

The Financial Times migration from old to new technology is a case in point, where there were no reports of disruption to end users. Work to upgrade to our new Keystone product was completed ahead of time because the Financial Times were starting to see a big increase in remote logins due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But it’s not enough just to innovate, agility is important too. Again, there are many reports of organisations failing during the pandemic because they could not adapt and change quickly enough. Over the past 25 years we’ve supported many organisations by deploying our federated single sign-on technology. The University of Melbourne and Museum of London are just two of the library organisations we set up during the pandemic in super-quick time, enabling their staff, researchers and learners to get quick and easy access to content.  With a second wave of Covid-19 looming, our work to extend access for NHS staff working at the Nightingale hospitals, and our collaboration with QxMD will almost certainly come in handy. 

There are so many innovative organisations and educational establishments which we have done some amazing work with. One in particular is Emerald Insight, the winners of our 2020 Best publisher UX award. Founded in the UK in 1967, Emerald Publishing clearly demonstrated how it had worked to get closer to users to understand their needs and user journey. Emerald Insight’s design makes research that benefits society easy to discover for the widest possible audience. Co-developed with 18 universities from around the world, the uniquely tailored platform is invaluable for academics, librarians and students alike. Emerald’s communities tested and validated every design decision to make researchers’ and readers’ lives easier. The publisher is a fantastic example of how our technology can be used to enhance the end-user’s experience and ease access to knowledge. 

Language 

The language to describe our technology has evolved at the same pace as our technology advancements. However, we have discovered that our language is not always consistent and can sometimes confuse end-users, and even those who work in the industry.   

Every institution or establishment has its own way of describing the technology:  single-sign-on, single sign-in, same sign on, enterprise sign in, institutional access, federated access, log-on. All are valid ways of explaining access knowledge technology, although, nine times out of ten, this is where we lose the end-user, because the description of the technology is confusing and means different things to different people in different situations. 

We have been trying to solve this issue for years, it is an evolving process that institutions across the globe need to address. Simplifying the language for end-users and those individuals who work in our industry is a must. The Seamless Access service has gone some way to solve language used at login by establishing the ‘Access through your institution’ button outlined in the RA21 recommended practices for access to institutionally provided information resources. But not all publishers are aware of the recommended practices or the benefits of the new service, so the login experience remains confusing and frustrating for end-users. 

Collective will 

Lastly, the collective will of those that work in the industry needs to be addressed. Why have we not all come together and made remote access to content and knowledge as simple as it should be? Why is the user experience still so inconsistent? And, why has it been such a struggle to build consensus? The simple answer is because I do not think it has been a big enough issue or gained sufficient momentum – until now.

A few years ago we joined the RA21 initiative, contributing to some of the pilots and a set of recommended practices to improve access to institutionally provided information resources. We continue to support this work through the Seamless Access service, which aims to provide a consistent login experience. Discussions are currently underway about how to integrate our Wayfinder organisational discovery service with the Seamless Access service, to provide an even simpler user experience. 

Uptake of these services by publishers was slow and steady until the pandemic hit, and the demand for secure, simple and scalable remote access to content and services started to drive huge changes to how we work and study.

Why has change been so slow to happen? Lots of people point the fingers at the publishers, blaming them for inconsistent presentation and use of the tech, but this is not the case. Because when we asked, publishers said they respond to the needs of their library customers. This is why it is vitally important that libraries assert the needs of their library users more demonstratively and make the case for a simpler, seamless user experience. 

As OpenAthens has grown globally, we have realised what the challenges are, and we want to facilitate the relationships between institutions, publishers, and end-users to improve the collective will. This started 25 years ago when we worked with the University of Bath, and now there is the realisation that it is universal, as there are so many different users and publishers. 

Things can get better. The tech is developing, and understanding will continue to evolve. Many institutions have adopted new ways of describing, distributing and using technology more effectively. The challenge is the same as 25 years ago – students, scientists, doctors and knowledge enthusiasts are trying to access lots of different learning platforms for information and, as a collective, the industry is trying to make this easier for every end-user. 

We have come a long way from our first deployment as an internal access management system, and are proud that we were one of the first services to provide electronic access to library databases.

We believe our success and global growth over 25 years has been down to our three key values around which our work has always been based: helping people achieve great things; providing excellent customer service; and supporting and innovating for the future.

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