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.