Athens users: follow-up

Last week, I blogged some thoughts on managing user access to e-journals, inspired by a tweet from Ben “Bad Science” Goldacre. I won’t rehash everything I said in the last post, but my basic point was that confusion over the different ways of accessing online subscriptions often leads users to just pick one and ignore the rest. Usually this works, but occasionally they will find something which doesn’t work with their preferred method, and will then assume that they can’t access it at all (I should note that I was under the impression at the time that the resource Dr Goldacre was talking about was accessible offsite via a proxy server – this turned out to be wrong, they apparently only allow access on campus; but I think the general point still stands, if not for this specific resource).

Now, as a student I completely understand this approach. No one wants to try and remember several different passwords, and you shouldn’t have to go hunting around to find out how you can get into a journal/database. It wastes time. Ideally, there would be one solution, with one login to remember, that would allow you access to everything you needed wherever you were. As a librarian however, I know that this solution doesn’t exist, and won’t for some time. What interests me is how we get this across to users without just causing them more problems. Do we explain every possible access route they have, watching them glaze over and knowing that they’ll forget it immediately? Or do we explain the most common route, make information on the others available (e.g. on the library website) and hope that they won’t just give up at the first hurdle? When I worked in e-access at City University we took the latter option. Mostly, it worked (at least I hope it did, although I guess we wouldn’t really know about it if people just weren’t using the resources they couldn’t get into through their library login).

My last post on this topic sparked a bit of debate in the comments section: Dr Goldacre appeared to be under the impression that I was arguing that a single login, available off-site, was unnecessary; and that he shouldn’t have complained about not being able to access a journal via Athens. That was really not the point I was trying to make. I agree that it’s a massive pain in the arse that the many journal publishers/platform providers can’t just agree on one authentication method to use. My comment that Dr Goldacre’s assertion was “wrong” was in reference to the fact that he appeared to believe that no Athens = no access. I am interested in the ways that users confuse the access method with the resource, and what we can do about it. I actually think Owen Stephens summed it up much better than I did in his comment – it’s a question of “education vs simplification”. There is a trend towards simplifying the access process for users, hiding the complexities so that users don’t actually need to understand how it works in order to use it, which overall I think is a good idea. However, this can cause problems if a particular service isn’t working – if users don’t know how their access actually works, they won’t know what their options are if it goes wrong.

I wanted to post this update so that I could make that a bit clearer. I guess that fact that I have such a small audience for this blog (less than 20 people subscribe to my RSS feed, and on a busy day I might get 10 visitors to the site – most days it’s less than 4, if any), and that I very much doubt that many of those visitors are non-librarians, means that I don’t think it’s necessary to state what should be common assumptions. I didn’t explain in my first post that a single sign-on, available anywhere, that works with every journal/database, is a Good Thing because I think that goes without saying. I don’t think that’s an interesting discussion because it’s already been had: the interesting discussion for me is what we do about the fact that this Good Thing doesn’t really exist.


3 comments on “Athens users: follow-up

  1. […] of what happened last time I tried to comment that a non-librarian blogger might be a bit mistaken regarding access to […]

    • In practice not having an athens account does mean denial of access: since the practical alternative for nonaffiliated researchers is subscription journal by journal (@$100 per journal year), or purchase paper by paper (@$40 per paper). This would be OK if there were a way to pay for Athens access (at say $500 per year) but there ain’t: Athens is for wholesale educational institutions, not retail. Yet serious research might mean accessing twenty to thirty journals in a year. Result: no institution, no access – or rather, that individual users end up subsidising institutional ones. I know that on the given model this has to be (otherwise institutions might start pretending to be individuals), but I can’t help thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with a knowledge distribution service which achieves the opposite result. Many people come to rely on obtaining the electronic text directly from the author (which they are often happy to do), but the effect of this is to make the journals irrelevant as distribution methods, and relevant only as vehicles of prestige and selection – an inportant function. However, since this last function is usually achieved at next to no cost (editors and reviewers are seldom paid but do it as a service to their discipline), the current model which puts a functionally redundant pay barrier up to be administered by the librarian is under considerable strain, and rightly so. As screen-reading for academic text becomes the norm, open access journals will be the only morally defencible way to go – *unless* administrators can think of a way to charge accessibly for individual user access to be distinguished from institutional access, ie, sell Athens login at a fee comparable with membership of a private club.

      • Completely agree – that wasn’t really the purpose of my post though! I was just talking from the point of view of a librarian in an HE institution, several access methods are available depending on what the journal itself accepts (not all accept Athens logins). My concern is about how we educate students as to what their different options are for accessing different journals, without confusing them to the point where they give up. I am completely in agreement with you that open-access is the only morally defensible way to go! That’s a separate issue from what my original blog post was discussing though.

        Thanks for the comment by the way! I’m curious as to how you found your way to my blog? This post is over 2 years old – it’s very uncommon for old posts on my blog to get any attention!

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