Scholarly publishers and content providers have made great strides in the design and usability of their online platforms in recent years. Some of these developments have come as a result of the work of underlying platform providers, such as those managed by HighWire and Atypon, while others have involved developments in proprietary platforms. At the same time, the effects of these improvements have been modest relative to the needs of researchers.
One important dynamic, which is all too frequently ignored, is that content providers operate in the systems ecosystem of the licensing academic library. This ecosystem incorporates a number of services and intermediaries, and, for all the creativity that has gone into it, it nevertheless has real weaknesses. Content providers have been challenged to integrate their offerings as seamlessly into this ecosystem as would benefit researchers.
In a recent Ithaka S+R issue brief, I wrote about some of the various stumbling blocks that off-campus users, especially, experience in using licensed e-resources. Even for common research workflows, when off campus, researchers can be required to click through seven or more webpages in order to gain access to an article or book that they have already discovered. Similarly, mobile devices all too often are poorly served by site design and the web apps that have been created for them, surprising given that libraries want to invest in mobile solutions and the strategic opportunities they face to incorporate the sensors and services that these devices offer. These challenges can be found across the range of content providers, libraries, and various intermediary services, and collectively I believe they are driving users away from licensed e-resources and towards open access materials.
In one view, the obvious solution is for libraries to redouble their advocacy for open access solutions, which are definitionally immune from authentication challenges. Without taking anything away from the advantages of open access here, authentication is only one piece of the puzzle. Both licensed and open resources share access shortcomings around discoverability, personalization, and usability.
To adapt, publishers, libraries, and intermediaries need to examine not only the usability of their own platforms and how they can continue to be improved, but also how they are in practice used in scholarly research alongside other platforms and services. To do so, they cannot bring researchers into their usability labs, but instead they must engage researchers in their workplaces, in campus offices, labs, libraries, and dorms, and equally in off-campus homes and housing.
At the same time, some of these issues cannot be solved by individual publishers. For example, new authentication approaches might require a common framework or provider, whether something organized on a community basis through NFAIS, NISO, or the Shibboleth Consortium, or on a more proprietary basis through a service like Mendeley, ReadCube, or ResearchGate. In my view, access stumbling blocks offer additional evidence that a completely different approach to user accounts would be beneficial.
There are some notable alternatives. For example, EBSCO and ProQuest are assembling the building blocks to develop more seamlessly integrated ecosystems. Their content platforms contain large portions of the books and serials that are typically required for undergraduate education, potentially limiting the number of transitions required across content platforms, and they offer a variety of library management systems and discovery tools, including index-based search services, knowledge bases, link resolvers, and more. Understanding these providers not only as components of the complex and difficult academic systems ecosystem, but potentially as alternatives to it, is an important strategic consideration for libraries and publishers alike.
Ultimately, researchers face unnecessary frustrations due to outdated systems and interfaces, cobbled together as much as they are designed. As distance learning continues its inexorable growth and research practices continue to anticipate always-connected devices, it is becoming more urgent for libraries, content providers, and other intermediaries to address these problems.