Four seniors preparing to change institutional affiliation, May 2014 (Michael Marsland / Yale University)

Commencement is a joyous event at every university, one where almost no one is thinking about scholarly communications. But it also signals a moment where thousands of authorized users of licensed e-resources lose access, as they graduate from their student status. Many universities will already have begun courting these students as alumni representatives and even donors. Libraries and scholarly publishers, too, should be considering how to serve users as they cross affiliations and their institutional affinities become more diffuse.

Most individuals today probably have access to the greatest amount of scholarly content in digital form during their undergraduate years. Many high schools and public libraries provide access to some set of materials, but university libraries tend to be far more comprehensive in their offerings. While some undergraduates became graduate students and even professors, far more will enter the working world, where their access tends to be more circumscribed. And they may need to learn an entirely new library environment. These changes are in many ways no different than what had happened in a world of only tangible materials.

There are a variety of efforts to try to address this loss of access experienced following one’s college years. The most direct of these is probably the alumni access provisions that are offered by a number of content providers. Typically structured as a comparatively modest add-on to a library site license or included in it at no additional expense, these programs are often administered through an office charged with retaining and developing alumni affinity. They required the development of authentication for alumni, which had not always been a priority for many universities. Many universities now maintain the ability to authenticate alumni, which has opened up a variety of digital services and models for ongoing engagement that they can offer to this group.

While these alumni programs have expanded access to certain resources for thousands if not millions more people, the eligible individuals have identities that are more complex than being just alumni. They may have access to digital resources as residents of a public library’s community, as graduate students or faculty members at another university, as members of a learned society, as individual subscribers to an e-journal, as adjuncts teaching in multiple universities, as employees of a research organization, or through a variety of other means. As a result, the same individual may have access privileges to different content through each of several institutional affiliations.

This is complicated for the researcher when, for example, one’s employer, a community college, licenses only a small subset of the materials on a given content platform while that same individual’s alma mater licenses a different subset for its alumni. Or, where an adjunct has different levels of access through two or more universities. In such cases, the same individual has to authenticate differently to access for different sets of content on the same content platform, another example of the stumbling blocks that impede researcher access to the scholarly literature. The phenomenon of multiple institutional affiliations is driven by the web of organizations that work to provide access to licensed e-resources, rather than in any way specific to alumni access programs.

At the same time, many scholarly publishers lose out on the opportunity to maintain a relationship with many users following a shift in institutional identity. Whatever relationship may have been embedded in the researcher’s account on a service like ScienceDirect or EBSCOHost – one’s new-content alerts, for example – is too frequently driven in an institution-specific way, given how platform user accounts and institutional authentication at times interact with one another. Some content platforms are increasingly looking to develop relationships with individuals, but these efforts are to some degree thwarted as institutional affiliations shift.

Researchers’ multiple and changing institutional affiliations create tangible challenges, both for the researchers themselves and for scholarly publishers as well. While an ideal solution may not be possible, it is worth contemplating a vision that would address these challenges.

Today, most authorization is managed through institutional site licenses or through a user account that is controlled by the university or other content licensor. What if, instead, the researcher carried credentials associated with multiple institutional identities, so that one would have access to all the resources to which one is entitled? In this vision, we would need to develop a user account that is portable across institutional affiliations and across platforms, that is controlled not by either of those parties but rather that is owned or controlled by the researcher. In addition to addressing the access challenges discussed above, such an account might afford some very interesting marketing and direct sales opportunities for scholarly publishers.

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld

Roger C. Schonfeld is the vice president of organizational strategy for ITHAKA and of Ithaka S+R’s libraries, scholarly communication, and museums program. Roger leads a team of subject matter and methodological experts and analysts who conduct research and provide advisory services to drive evidence-based innovation and leadership among libraries, publishers, and museums to foster research, learning, and preservation. He serves as a Board Member for the Center for Research Libraries. Previously, Roger was a research associate at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


11 Thoughts on "Maintaining Relationships with Readers as They Cross Affiliations"

Perhaps ORCID has a role to play here. But it sounds like you want content providers to register and track all their users, including every student. That would be a hefty system. There may also be some privacy issues to work out. Quite a challenge.

“we would need to develop a user account that is portable across institutional affiliations and across platforms, that is controlled not by either of those parties but rather that is owned or controlled by the researcher”

Is there a role for the ORCID ID here?

My undergraduate alma mater gives me access to certain online resources, like Project Muse and JSTOR, but the research university that employed me for twenty years gives me ongoing access to everything I had access to as an employee, so in my case I don’t really need to avail myself of the alumni route to access. But I suspect very few people are in this kind of privileged situation, so the solution Roger suggests seems well worth exploring.

Sandy, I assume that your ongoing access to content provided by your former employer is due to your emeritus status — is that correct? If so, this brings up an interesting wrinkle that we have been dealing with in libraries for some time: our licenses invariably define “authorized users” as currently-enrolled students and current members of the faculty or staff. This definition excludes alumni and retirees–unless the retirees have emeritus faculty status, which means they remain members of the faculty even though they are no longer employees of the university. So some retirees get perpetual access to licensed online resources, and some don’t.

No, I do not have emeritus status. That has to be specially voted on, and it was not done for me. So I am just a regular retiree. At least some of the former staff at the university press where I was director have also been allowed in retirement to continue using their university email accounts, as I do.

OK, that’s interesting, because to the degree that this allows you to have continued access to the licensed online resources of your former institution, your institution is almost certainly in breach of many contracts.

The university makes a number of licensed aggregations (Project Muse, JSTOR, EBSCO, etc.) available to alumni, and I was designated an “honorary alumnus” on my retirement, so maybe that makes a difference?

Definitely, if your only access is to those packages. But if you have the same breadth of access to online resources that a currently-enrolled student or current employee has, then your institution is almost certainly in breach.

Looks like a hefty task..but in long term, this will help Scholarly Publishers and Institutions to maintain relationship with their readers and continue to serve them across affiliations.

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