mobile devices
mobile devices (Photo credit: Hands On Support)

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.

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Judy Luther

Judy Luther

Judy Luther is President of Informed Strategies which provides market insights to organizations on innovative content and business models. A past president of SSP, she serves on the editorial board of Against the Grain and The Charleston Advisor.


7 Thoughts on "Mobile Access — Publishers Must Catch Up With User Adoption Trends"

University authorized user lists change daily. It is probably easier for an institution to maintain one standard proxy server than it is to establish authorization access mechanisms for each of hundreds of publishers each of whom seems to insist on their own DRM solution. In either case the answer is standards. If an app or a publisher will not support a standard tool like Ezproxy, they won’t survive in the market. Note that proxy servers also give institutions powerful audit data to determine what their users are actually accessing something that would be lost in direct publisher authentication of users.

Mobile further complicates matters as each telecom provider has its own network. There are emerging federations like the one in the UK but they are slow to evolve and I doubt that campus IT is aware of the issue of accessing publisher content which is a drawback for both the library that pays for access and the publisher that provides it.

David – I don’t disagree that standards are important. At a time when we are taking costs out of systems by reducing redundancy it doesn’t make sense to replicate an expensive process especially as a work around. Librarians have expressed concerns about users being on campus on the guest network rather than signing onto the campus network and therefore not having IP authenticated access. This area needs further development if our users are to have the access we envision and they expect.

Uh, sounds like another good reason to move in the direction of open access, no?

Perhaps, but I can imagine a scenario in which an open-access journal, aiming to save money, might not create a mobile version of their site/reader or skimp on a reactive design, making access via mobiles more difficult? Admittedly better some access rather than none, and that’s not going to be true for every case, but I imagine mobile open access would bring its own challenges, even if they are less significant than the challenges closed mobile scholarly article may face.

Gee, in the “old days,” you actually had to walk to the library to see the content. Maybe the library “building” is now the whole campus, but you still can’t see the content from just anywhere on the planet. Maybe the answer for those who really need to work offsite is to buy individual subscriptions … just like in the old days!

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