Athens users

On Tuesday evening, I got home after having dinner with some library school friends and decided to put in a couple of hours work on my dissertation in advance of a meeting with my supervisor on Wednesday (which went swimmingly – didn’t get told off for starting a new job when I was supposed to be studying this time!). Two gruelling hours and 900 barely-coherent words later, I decided to wind down before bed by browsing through my Twitter feed. Almost immediately, I spotted this from Ben Goldacre (of Bad Science fame):

“dear annals of internal medicine editors. your paywall doesn’t accept Athens logins. your journal may as well not exist. authors take note.

Something about that tweet made the former HE e-journals assistant in me sit up and take notice. Unfortunately I was too spangled at the time to think any more of it than “that’s interesting for some reason” – so I tweeted to that effect and went to bed.

The next morning I found this reply from Owen Stephens (posted at 5.30 am – brutal!):

“I find it interesting as well. He’s wrong of course – UK only view and the move away from Athens in HE makes it less true”

Now, I agree with Owen that Dr Goldacre’s tweet was “wrong” – a cursory glance at the Annals’ subscribers FAQ shows that, while they don’t appear to support Athens authentication (at least, it isn’t mentioned), but they do provide username and passwords for individual subscribers or IP authentication for institutions, so it’s pretty far off the mark to claim that they “may as well not exist”. Especially with, as Owen pointed out, the move away from Athens in UK HE – I don’t know exactly what the situation is with that in the NHS (any health librarians out there who can shed some light on that?) but the impression I got when I worked in e-journals is that Athens generally isn’t considered a suitable long-term solution.

However, the point that interested me wasn’t simply that he was wrong, but why he had arrived at the conclusion he did. If whatever institution supplied him with an Athens login subscribed to the Annals of Internal Medicine, he would have been able to access it without using Athens; if they didn’t, he wouldn’t have been able to access it even if the Annals did support Athens. We got this confusion a lot from our students when I worked in HE – we’d been phasing out Athens logins for about a year when I started (we only still used it for the dozen or so titles which wouldn’t accept our IP authentication system). We used to get lots of calls and emails from angry students (usually around deadlines) demanding an Athens login, because the titles they needed to use weren’t letting them in with their University ID and password. I always tried patiently explaining that they still wouldn’t be able to get in with an Athens login – Athens is not a magic key that gives you access to everything, you still only get what we’ve subscribed to, etc – but sometimes it was just easier to set them up an Athens account and let them figure it out for themselves.

Is there something about Athens that just inspires blind loyalty in its users? A year before I started at the university, when the IP authentication was first set up and they stopped automatically issuing every student with an Athens password, a candidate actually ran for SU president on a “Bring Back Athens” platform. He issued a leaflet about how the library were sacrificing students’ research in favour of saving money, claiming that students would have access to only a fraction of the titles they’d been able to use with Athens (clearly not true – the library had actually increased it’s journal subscriptions!). The e-resources manager wrote a very careful, thorough and polite response, which I used to copy-and-paste responses from when dealing with confused students a year later.

The main point I wanted to make is that, yes, users are frequently confused about what library resources they can access, and how (and perhaps even that they are library resources – I wonder if Dr Goldacre realises that somebody paid for the subscriptions he uses?) – but what can we do about it? At the end of the day, who’s fault is it if users don’t know what access routes they have? Perhaps it’s a moot point really – I generally found with the students that, once they’d got past the initial “I NEED this for my DEGREE and the library is MAKING ME FAIL” panic, and you’d helped them either find an alternative access route to Athens, or an alternative source, all the rage just vanished. It’s a short-term thing; the users weren’t bothered where the information came from, they just knew they needed it. As Owen put it, in reference to Ben Goldacre’s original tweet: “Shows how uninteresting this stuff is to users – someone who usually does detail doesn’t care”.


16 comments on “Athens users

  1. Before Athens there was BIDS (Bath Information and Data Services) – which for many was synonymous with the Science Citation Index (a precursor to Web of Science). After the service migrated to MIMAS, and logins changed to Athens based authentication users would still ask for their ‘BIDS login’ (and of course, be advised by their lecturers that this is what they needed).

    I think there is a really interesting question here of education vs simplification. On the one hand I think “It’s a complicated world out there – if you want to be an student/academic/healthcare professional you are going to have to deal with it, and you should know the difference between Athens and Web of Science etc.” on the other, I also think “All these varied routes to information, why should you have to care – you just want the information”.

    I think that we are definitely moving towards hiding more of this complexity. We try to ensure the user isnt’ interrupted by logins, or prompts, and they can just get the information they need. Whether this is done by using AthensDA, Shibboleth, or Proxy servers – essentially we take away the need for a ‘special’ login and make the experience as seamless as possible.

    I think overall this is a good thing – but just sometimes, sometimes, I can’t help thinking – you really should understand how this all works!

    • Yeah, that’s pretty much the approach we took at City as well. I know what you mean – I kinda think that’s the only way it can really work, as most students don’t have the time, patience or inclination to try to understand how the authentication actally works, but I also think it would make everyone’s lives easier if they did!

  2. I administrate the Athens logins in my library, so I can answer the health side of things. We’re still using it for some journals but more and more, we’re shifting to IP based (mostly through Swets) authentication. There do still seem to be some NHS resources that only use Athens but they’re more the domain of my colleagues who deal with the NHS specialist collections but I don’t get a lot of “Oh noes!!” emails requesting immediate access to them.

    Actually the last “omg, I can’t get into this resource that I used to be able to get into and I NEED IT NOW, HOMG!!!” Athens related problem that I got was solved by looking at their screen and going “Uh, that would be because you’ve not logged in…” “….oh”

    • Thought-provoking post! I’m interested in the shift to IP authentication rather than Athens / username & password access. As a distance learner the IP only option drives me crazy – we do have VPN access but that only works in certain operating systems, assumes you have permission to set it up on the computer you’re using to access journals and manages to break my access to all other websites unless you remember to go in each time a modify other internet options. I know the ways around these problems but they’re far too much convoluted. That’s speaking as a student of librarianship, so I can’t imagine how awkward it is to explain to other students. IP authentication may work if permission only exists to access on campus, but not at all practical for those of us studying at a distance. Why do it?

      What was the problem with Athens anyway? I seem to have started just as our place was phasing it out in favour of Shibboleth and VPN so I’m missing some of the history here.

      • Wow, that sounds like a massively clunky system. The proxy access system is a lot simpler at City: you just have to the library catalogue, then follow the links through to the journals you want to use. The web access management system we used (I say we – I don’t actually work there any more!) added in some gibberish to the URLs that made sure the user was sent through our proxy server, so the journal homepage would read them as belonging to City University. We also had a link resolver, so if you were browsing through an external database (most people used Google Scholar) and wanted to click through to a journal article, it would also route you through our proxy, or search the catalogue to see if we had the journal in print if we didn’t actually have access to the electronic journal.

        That system worked pretty well – as a student, I never had any problems using it, and I know from dealing with the e-access enquiries inbox that it was rare for the system to fall down.

        I don’t really know exactly why Athens is no longer a preferred solution. I get the impression it’s partly to do with cost and partly to do with how labour-intensive it is to maintain user access; I think there’s also concerns on the publishers’ side about security. I could be wrong though – anyone know any better?

  3. excellent, you’re the experts.

    i’d still like to get access to this article in Annals right now. i’m on my laptop on a train. normally i’d use my athens login: it’s popular with users because it’s one system that works for almost all journals that your institution subscribes to, so it’s fairly standard, only one system to remember, only one login and password, and crucially of course it works outside of work.

    what’s the better, easy way that i should already know, and already be using, to read this paper in Annals right now? did i miss it, in the blog post above?

    • Hi, thanks for the comment. If your institution subscribes to Annals, you should have access through IP authentication. When I worked in HE we used to use a proxy server for this – students wanting to access the University’s e-journals had to follow the links through the library catalogue, so that the journal would recognise them as institutional users. As this approach is supported by the Annals of Internal Medicine, I would imagine that this is how your institution manages access. Is there an online catalogue/resource portal you can use? If you don’t know, I’d suggest contacting the librarians/information team at your institution to find out (although I doubt they’d be in on a Sunday evening!). Of course, there’s always the possibility that your institution doesn’t subscribe to this title at all, in which case you wouldn’t be able to access it even if they did accept Athens logins. Sorry if that wasn’t clear from the blog post, but I really wasn’t expecting any non-librarians to read this!

      As far as Athens goes – I can see why users prefer it, but unfortunately a lot of the journal publishers don’t. It’s not a secure system – and the last thing any publisher wants is an unauthorised user reading their precious text! As librarians, the issue we face is trying to make things as simple for users as possible while also keeping the publishers happy. If the majority of our resources accept IP authentication and only a handful still insist on Athens, that’s what we’ll go for. It’s a balancing act, and it’s far from perfect, but I think I speak for all librarians when I say that we do the best we can with what’s available. In future, if you can’t access something, but think you should be able to, ask your institutions’ librarians for help – seriously, it’s what we do!

      Edit: Have just been informed by a health librarian friend that the NHS only have about a year left on their Athens deal, are currently debating what authentication system is best to use, and may not stay with Athens after the year is up.

      Another edit: Should point out for clarity that the note above, about the NHS possibly not staying with Athens, is opinion not fact.

  4. Annals Of Internal Medicine: “Articles published in the last 6 months are available on-campus only”

    Fail, waste of time.

    it seems to me, beside all the extensive discussion above about how i am wrong, and how librarians have expertise (I have met many who have a great deal of expertise) that you are missing a very simple issue of usability. i want to access an article in a journal. there is a system called Athens that grants me access to almost every journal i want, from anywhere i may find myself (and i get around, like a lot of people). as i said, it doesn’t work for this journal. despite your exclamations about how mistaken i am, i don’t have this journal article on my screen.

    i don’t want to get on my bike, cycle to the nearest train station, head for London, wait for the might security staff to let me into the corridor with my office on it, start up my pc, and read it there. i can read other journals when i want to, i cannot read this one, so as i said, to me it is broken. I cannot read it, therefore I would advise people not to publish in it, since it cannot by read by the means most people I know use to read journals outside of their actual office PC, which is a situation a lot of people work in, and read in.

    I can only say i’m pretty surprised that you don’t agree. I’m sorry to say it, but to me, all of what you’ve said on this page reads as if, in your eagerness to bemoan the extent to which others don’t appreciate the expertise of your profession (for which i have a great deal of respect, i;m working with librarians on a project at the moment), you’ve entirely missed the very basic issue of usability, and people’s need to get access to information. I’d expect a good librarian to be on my side on this one. I honestly think, on reflection, most would be.

    • I am surprised that there’s no option to access this title through a proxy server, so you didn’t have to go into your office to do so – it appeared from the journal’s FAQ that they allowed that, but perhaps I misunderstood. Or it could be something specific in the licence with your institution that prevents this – without having access to the licence I couldn’t say. That seems to me to be a more serious problem than the Athens issue, and implies that the publishers really aren’t on board with the whole digital revolution thing. Sadly, very often the case – a lot of publishers haven’t come round to the idea that you can’t treat an electronic serials subscription the same way as print: usage is completely different.

      I don’t think I’ve missed the “very basic issue of usability”. I totally agree that materials such as this should be available wherever people are working – I don’t think I said anything contrary to that in my original post. The point of my post was that there are more ways than just Athens to access material (and Athens itself will not be around forever) and whether it was our role to educate users about the different access routes or just to point them in the right direction. In my experience, most users really aren’t interested in the technicalities of access, they just want the information, so I tend to go for the latter; but this raises problems with, for example, users assuming that Athens is their only means of access. Commenting that you were “wrong” (a poor choice of words, apologies for that) with reference to your original tweet was because I don’t believe that not allowing an Athens login means that a title “may as well not exist” – in retrospect, the fact that they appear to limit access to on-site only probably does support your comment, but that’s a licensing issue.

      I also didn’t mean to “bemoan the extent to which others don’t appreciate the expertise of [my] profession” – and reading back over the post, I don’t think I did. Librarians work behind the scenes; I wouldn’t expect users to have any more than a vague idea of what we do. I am genuinely interested in how users perceive the role of the library when most of our content is digital, and many users never set foot in a physical library. An awful lot of people assume that whatever they use on the internet is just there, free; that was what I meant when I said that I wondered if you knew who paid for the subscriptions you use.

  5. i dont think anyone cares what its called, athens or otherwise, but a single simple system for login to all journals outside the office is all ppl care about. cheers, b

    • Well, yes, I agree. That’s basically the point I’ve been trying to make. Problem is, there isn’t just one system that works for everything, and probably won’t be for a while. We can try and make things as simple for users as we can, but there’s no way around that issue yet. I live in hope there will be some day, though!

  6. It is confusing and frustrating though when there are lots of different ways of reading stuff. I am a part-time, distance research student and I can never remember which journals I get via my Athens login, what I can get just on open access and what I have to log in to the clunky Lboro remote system to pretend I am on campus so I can have IP authenticated access. I live in London so popping into the library is never going to be an option for me. Plus I am a librarian so I can’t help thinking I ought to be able to do the finding-a-reference stuff without it taking me half an hour each time…

    • Oh god, totally. Am well acquainted with this problem myself, being a student of a university who have an e-only policy for journals (I do live close enough to be able to go in, but the access routes I use are the same on-campus as off so that doesn’t really make a difference). Having also worked at this university, I at least have a bit of understanding of why the situation is as it is. It would be brilliant to have just one system for everything, and at some point I’m sure (I hope?) that will be the case, but for the moment it isn’t and we have to work around that. I can understand why this is frustrating for users, but that’s also why I think it’s important to make sure that users know what access routes they have, rather than confusing the content with the authentication method.

      I also think it would be helpful if scholarly publishers stopped trying to force e-content into the print model. Not accepting Athens logins I can understand – but also limiting access to on-site, or only one concurrent user? That’s a fatal lack of understanding of how people use information. At City we had a couple of publishers who sold us “e-only” packages for their journals – which turned out to consist of a single username and password, which we were NOT under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES to share beyond one, named staff member. Gee thanks, I’ll just tell our thousands of students that they can’t actually see the journal, but this one staff member can (presumably?) tell them what’s in it.

      Edit: Hmmm, just read over that after I hit enter – apologies for the slightly off-topic rant at the end there! Clearly, I still have some unresolved issues towards certain publishers who shall remain nameless…

  7. As a librarian who specialises in managing access to e-journals, I deal with these problems daily – I can only echo that it frustrates me as much as the users of my library’s services. But – without doubt, we’ll only see “a single simple system for login to all journals outside the office” once the end-consumers of academic published works – students; more particularly professional academics and researchers – start directing their ire at the publishers and e-journal platform providers.

  8. […] 2009 at 11:41 am · Filed under Uncategorized ·Tagged Athens, library users Last week, I blogged some thoughts on managing user access to e-journals, inspired by a tweet from Ben “Bad […]

  9. […] pm on September 25, 2009 | # | 0 Tags: athens, journals, open access, web 2.0 A law library friend recently waded into debate with Ben Goldacre about accessing journals via Athens (access management […]

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