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.
“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”.