When content is available on a mobile device, we expect the convenience of access anytime from anywhere. However, if the content is licensed to an institution, the user’s path for mobile access can be complicated with pitfalls.
The current method of using IP authentication to verify legitimate users is a location-based method that requires the user to either be on campus or appear to be on campus by signing on through the university’s network. This step must occur before any searching is done, or any work must be repeated. Although this is true today, the problem is not as evident since most laptops depend on local wifi access, which means the user is working in a location-specific environment.
On the other hand, tablets and smartphones are designed to work on cell towers and move seamlessly from wifi to mobile connectivity. This environment lends itself to apps that are icons for the publishers’ brand and utilize features such as geo-location or include multimedia such as podcasts. All works well if the content comes with the app, as it frequently does with popular publications.
Academic users, however, must first connect while they are on campus to pick up an authentication key that is good for a specified period of time — either weeks or months — and must then be renewed. So unless the user plans ahead, they are likely to be disappointed. One well-known scholarly journal simply abandoned the effort with this disclaimer:
At this time mobile devices, including mobile phones and tablets operating on a cellular network, will not be paired with a Site License.
Another publisher simply stated that their app designed for an iPad only works when the user is on campus – which sort of defeats the benefit of access on a mobile device. In the UK, the Access Management Federation for JISC Collections serves to authenticate all academic users. One of their managers, Mark Williams, noted the irony in his recent article in UKSG Insight:
While it is encouraging that resource providers are looking to cater for mobile use. . . . The time when a user is most likely to want mobile access is the very time they are most likely to be away from the physical campus.
Given the structural challenges to offering mobile access to licensed content, scholarly publishers, content providers and platform hosts are to be commended for working to develop various adaptations – whether it’s an authentication key, pairing the device, or another technique that works temporarily to validate the user’s phone. Unfortunately, users must separately secure access on their device for every source they use. This is a solution that simply does not scale.
Typically, libraries have assumed responsibility for proxy servers that enable users to come through the campus network. But librarians are also challenged by the variety of apps which is reflected in these lists organized at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Cornell University.
Instead of the university being able to authenticate users one time for access to all the institution’s licensed content, each publisher has to manage the authorization process. Ideally the university would authenticate users and their devices at the start of each semester for access to all their licensed content but security concerns have precluded this approach.
One potential solution appeared in a recent demo by Third Iron Library Technologies whose first product, BrowZine, assembles articles into journals for an optimal experience on a tablet. Browzine works with each institution’s protocols for authentication and link resolvers to provide seamless access. So a commercial solution is possible.
Why is this so important? Access to mobile content is rapidly reaching a tipping point. For the first time in 11 years, PC sales are declining given the rise of mobile devices. The first generation of tablet PCs with detachable keyboards and touch screens are here. Within the next 12 months, mobile apps and tablet computing were selected as technologies to watch in the “NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Higher Education Edition.”
The bulk of scholarly journal content is available in digital form and must be accessible to mobile users. Unfettered access to licensed scholarly content is not a problem to be solved by each content provider. So when publishers are considering mobile and making decisions about native apps or HTML and whether to simply resize the content or design a better user experience, seamless access is another factor in the mix.