Creating Connections: themes from the first OpenAthens customer conference

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This November, 120 information professionals attended the inaugural OpenAthens Customer Conference to discuss the key issues facing libraries, publishers, and technology.

Based on the overarching theme, Creating Connections, OpenAthens’ Commercial Director, Jon Bentley, highlighted three areas of focus for the company:

•           Better connections between publishers and institutions

•           Easier connections to local directories and data for administrators

•           Trusted connections between institutions, libraries and end users


These themes and others were revisited throughout the day across a variety of sessions and round-table discussions.


Is ‘free’ really free?

A keynote from Tracy Gardner (Simon Inger Consulting) presented some surprising findings from a recent wide scale survey of library users. Chief among these was that readers believe over half of the article downloads they use in their research are free to access.

This is more marked in less developed or well-resourced countries, but readers in leading research economies also claim to make use of a large proportion of ‘free’ resources. This could be partly due to the popularity of open access and abstracting & indexing services, but also to the impact of identity and access management systems. When these are fully woven into users’ workflows, the seamless access to subscription-based content provides the illusion of ‘free’.


Better, easier connections

A perennial issue for librarians and publishers alike is the complex and varied nature of user journeys. The number of routes readers can take to online information are as varied as the users themselves, and libraries cannot support every possible journey to the same extent. While technological developments will tackle this in the medium- and long-term, librarians are encouraged to select specific routes to knowledge that they can support. By doing so, they can focus resources in the short term on making those journeys as seamless as possible.

This complexity includes the many and varied ways login prompts are presented on publisher websites; these often include technical terms that can confuse and frustrate end-users. While OpenAthens is participating in programmes to help standardise approaches (such as Resource Access for the 21st Century) to address the issue in the longer term, a round table on ‘OpenAthens, Shibboleth, or simply SAML?’ discussed how publishers and librarians alike can configure systems for an improved user experience.



A recurring theme was to thoroughly consider the end user experience and not to assume that end users know what they need to do – compared to what they might actually do – to access their organisation’s subscribed-to content. At present, end users often fail to grasp that they need to access publishers’ sites via an organisational login rather than an as individual. Guidance on mapping out end user journeys and ways libraries can communicate the benefits and use of single sign-on was delivered.


Trusted connections

Simplifying the end user journey has long been a goal of single sign-on(SSO) systems such as OpenAthens. This is facilitated by the passing of credentials from identity providers (such as institutions) to service providers (such as publishers). For commercial agreements to work, trust is a key factor. A ‘triumvirate of trust’ was described: end users trust that content is good quality, publishers trust that content is being accessed within licence terms, and libraries trust that publishers are delivering the best content.


GDPR Impact

This ‘attribute release’ is provided by SAML-based systems but there are regulatory issues to consider – primarily the new GDPR legislation; organisations need to be compliant by May 2018. The GDPR requires users’ consent to store personal data and OpenAthens is currently developing best practice for how this could be obtained with minimal impact on the user journey. 


Limits of IP

Much of the conversation throughout the conference centred around the limits of IP recognition. Easier federated access was discussed as a way to transition to an ‘IP-less’ user journey. A SAML-based approach has additional advantages around personalisation – for example, being able to customize landing pages and save search histories.

It was also suggested that infrastructure changes such as the wide-scale implementation of IPv6 could disrupt reliance on IP recognition. This move could help incentivise both service providers and identity providers to phase out IP-based access management.


Harnessing innovation

Naturally, innovation was also a key theme – exemplified by Ken Chad’s keynote talk on engaging library users through a ‘jobs and outcomes’ approach to innovation. Delegates were urged to spend more time observing customers, take inspiration from parallel sectors and resist jumping at solutions too quickly. Librarians aren’t alone in their need to innovate, however; the infrastructure that connects users to content is evolving as even greater reliance is placed on flexible access to e-resources.


The future

Throughout the conference, customers shared their challenges and suggestions for the future of OpenAthens. A core area of development is making the deployment process even easier. The new OpenAthens access management API is the first part of this process, streamlining the setup and administration of access management federations for publishers.

The future of access is in making things as seamless as possible for end users. While there’s still distance to travel, the conference showed that publishers and libraries alike agree that the information industry is on the right path.