Twitter was abuzz this past week with the announcement of Get Full Text Research (GetFTR) at the STM association meeting in London. GetFTR attempts to reduce friction between discovery and access through a new kind of linking data service, and Roger Schonfeld’s same day analysis here in The Scholarly Kitchen provided some information from a publisher perspective. 

Developed by a group of five of the largest publishers, and built on top of RA21’s Seamless Access service, GetFTR was very effectively kept under wraps until the formal announcement — so much so that the staff of NISO, a lead partner in Seamless Access, was completely unaware of the project. 

GetFTR offers clear benefits for publishers and researchers. A direct link to a copy with known access entitlements is very useful. But, it seems some were taken aback by the less than warm welcome the announcement received from the library community.

Today, I wish to articulate why many librarians are concerned about GetFTR. 

In doing so, I do not claim to represent all librarians. Instead, I offer these ideas in the hopes they can enable movement from surprise to understanding, and perhaps even appreciation, of the library perspective. I am one who believes that libraries and publishers share the common mission of serving researchers, though I observe that we do not always agree about the best approaches to doing so. Nonetheless, we can strive for mutual understanding and respect.

Cantley: Wherries Waiting for the Turn of the Tide by Peter Henry Emerson

Concern: The Connection to Seamless Access

GetFTR builds on the foundation of Seamless Access, an initiative that troubles the library community. The predecessor project, RA21, raised many concerns related to control over and privacy of user data and the future of publisher support for proxy and IP based authentication, access pathways that are valued and broadly implemented in academic libraries. The follow-on organization to the RA21 project, Seamless Access, seems to be unable to find a library organization partner to join the leadership team in spite of making a number of overtures, and the group has chosen to move forward with implementation without that engagement. By connecting itself to Seamless Access, GetFTR is “inheriting” a number of the library critiques of Seamless Access. That these two initiatives share a number of organizations and individuals in leadership roles makes this joining up of critique all the more understandable. As long as GetFTR stays tightly coupled with Seamless Access, so too will the concerns.  

Concern: The Limited User Base Enabled

Seamless Access currently serves a very small percentage of the library user community. Seamless Access uses SAML and relies on libraries having alerted publishers that a SAML service is available from their campus for the publisher to connect to. Making these technical connections live requires, at a minimum, communication between the library and the publisher, but likely also the campus’ SAML service manager, and may involve a data agreement as well. A quick review reveals that only a limited number of libraries have enabled federated identity access on the publisher platforms. For example, there are only 16 schools in the InCommon Federation in the United States that have enabled access on the Wiley platform. Elsevier’s showing is a little better but still tops out at 250 InCommon institutions enabled.

And, of course, an institution must have implemented SAML before the library can enable it with publishers. Many institutions, however, do not have a SAML service. For example, the InCommon Federation, the main federation in the United States, has only 764 members, not all of which are colleges or universities, out of a total of approximately 3,000 higher education institutions in the country. Libraries and institutions face many challenges in implementing new methods of authentication and so we cannot anticipate rapid deployment of SAML across the remaining institutions. 

To the extent that GetFTR represents improved access to publisher platform content, librarians are rightly concerned that it is only being offered to such a small part of the population that could benefit from it. In addition, the small percentage of users who will have Seamless Access, and thus GetFTR, will have radically divergent experiences across devices and even across browsers on the same device because Seamless Access is specific to a given browser and not the device or user.

Unfortunately, GetFTR is currently unable to use IP recognition to enable GetFTR linking due to GDPR limitations on passing IP addresses (considered personally identifying information) to third-party services. Future work to investigate proxy-based access would be welcome to supplement the Seamless Access-based approach.

Concern: The Insertion of New Stumbling Blocks 

GetFTR’s utility is limited by how Seamless Access is activated for the user. To activate Seamless Access, a user must have set their institutional affiliation in the course of logging on to a publisher platform via Seamless Access or have been provided with a direct link to the Seamless Access service in order to declare their institutional affiliation directly to the service. In the latter case, the user would be aware that the activation has occurred but in the former it will likely be very obscured.

But, in either case, Seamless Access is not activated for the user per se. And, Seamless Access is not activated for the user’s device. No, instead, Seamless Access is activated for the specific browser on the specific device. Thus, for GetFTR to be active, the user will have to be using the specific browser on the specific device that has been activated with Seamless Access. 

Personally, for me to activate Seamless Access across the six devices that I use on a regular basis and all of the browsers on each, I would need to activate Seamless Access 13 times. It is hard to imagine the typical library user pursuing this intensive activation process proactively in order to ensure a consistent user experience for themselves. Instead, their GetFTR experience will be confusingly varied.

What reliance on Seamless Access also means is that most on-campus users are going to have the non-GetFTR experience on their on-campus devices because those devices use IP recognition for resource access. To overcome this, the user will have to proactively visit the Seamless Access service directly to register their affiliation.

All of which is to point out a concern that GetFTR is introducing new stumbling blocks and further Balkanization of the user experience. When a discovery layer provides a differential user experience of GetFTR based on whether the specific browser on a specific device is Seamless Access enabled, there is no question that user confusion will ensue. 

There is clear value in a direct link to a publisher platform PDF. My own library has had this functionality in our locally developed EasySearch interface for quite some time. We have the advantage of serving a specific user community with known entitlements and so, while not without its challenges, this is more straightforward for Easy Search. (For an example, see “ScienceDirect Link” in this search result.) 

However, the value of having a link to the content when it is available does not mean it is useful for GetFTR to display a “red” signal that would indicate “no access.”  The actual reality of what the GetFTR service knows is “there is no entitled access that is known to exist for all users at this institution on the publisher platform.” And this — this is hugely problematic if it is used to display a “red” no access signal. Access may be available from another library licensed resource (e.g., an aggregator) or in an open access repository. Indeed, the user may have access on the very publisher platform but via a departmental or individual subscription rather than an institutional one!

Any implementation of the “red” signal will result in users being inappropriately thwarted and libraries will find themselves resorting to explaining that the red signal must be ignored. Of course, most users probably won’t ever ask a librarian about this because why would they question a clear signal from the platform? 

Removal of the “red” signal from the GetFTR approach would remove the concern that users could be misled by that signal into thinking that they do not have access when in reality they do. 

Concern: Exclusion from Advisory Committee 

GetFTR is the project of five publishers (American Chemical Society, Elsevier, Springer Nature, Taylor & Francis, and Wiley) advised by others in the industry including the American Society of Civil Engineers, Atypon, Digital Science, IEEE, Mendeley, PLOS, Silverchair, and Third Iron.

Missing from this list? Libraries. 

Publishers often take great pains to talk about how libraries are their partners, collaborators, and stakeholders. As recently as last month, for example, Elsevier’s CEO Kumsal Bayazit stated in her Charleston Conference keynote that “we see Librarians as key partners in moving to an ever-more frictionless research information system” and expressed a hope that “we can move beyond the past, work together pragmatically in the present so that we can partner and work together on the future.” In developing GetFTR, it appears that not only did publishers exclude libraries externally from the partnership but it appears some may also have excluded their internal library relations leaders from this new project as well as their library advisory boards.  

At a minimum, GetFTR should offer opportunities for the library community to learn about the project through webinars and the like that are developed specifically for a library audience. Given the reliance on Seamless Access at this point, a joint webinar may be particularly useful. What should libraries be doing regarding registrations, configurations, user outreach, staff training, etc., if they want to maximize the benefits of these initiatives in reducing friction for their users? 

And, perhaps obviously, adding library representation to the Advisory Board and the various GetFTR project groups would address the concerns of libraries as partners and stakeholders and ensure they are considered in the development process. Given the structure of GetFTR governance, I do not anticipate seeing library representation on the governance group, given how tightly scoped it is; though of course that would be welcomed by many. As a side note, university presses also appear to have been unrepresented in the discussions and this may be worth addressing as well. 

Concern: GetFTR Replacing the Library Link Resolver

The GetFTR website makes it seem like GetFTR is a user-facing service with a distinct interface of its own and this is particularly messaged in the image showing a GetFTR icon on a user screen. This makes it appear that GetFTR replaces the library link resolver rather than working alongside or, potentially, within in. Since the link resolver is a mechanism through which libraries can route users to an appropriate copy for a variety of purposes, it is not surprising that libraries are concerned about this. 

This concern is a result of confusing communications rather than a fundamental design flaw with GetFTR. Rather than user-facing as depicted on the GetFTR website, GetFTR would be better described and visualized as a data feed via an API that scholarly platforms and discovery tools can integrate along with the many other data feeds that they use to construct their interfaces.

The integrated approach to GetFTR can already be seen in Dimensions in instances where “View PDF” has a rollover text in some cases that says “Open Access PDF available from Publisher”). When Dimensions is fully enabled with Seamless Access (as of this writing it is waiting to be whitelisted by Seamless Access), for subscription articles the “View PDF” rollover will say “Access via <college/university name>”. Smartly, Dimensions will not send a “red” signal to users to indicate no access if Seamless Access+GetFTR does not indicate an entitlement as Dimensions recognizes and enables other user pathways, e.g., to aggregators and open access repositories. 

Revising the visualization and adding language to the FAQ about how GetFTR does not replace the link resolver would address this miscommunication. Better would be to have a demonstration of how GetFTR and link resolvers will work together (perhaps drawing upon the Dimensions implementation) rather than only a statement that they can. Libraries work closely with their discovery providers and would welcome the opportunity to understand how GetFTR can be integrated in those settings for improved user experience. 

Next Steps

Whether GetFTR will act to remediate these concerns remains to be seen. In some cases, I would expect that they will. In others, they may not. Publishers’ interests are not always aligned with library interests and they may accept a fraying relationship with the library community as the price to pay to pursue their strategic goals. 

Acknowledgements:  My reflections here are informed by deep engagement with the Twitter and Facebook dialogue about the GetFTR announcement, detailed review of the GetFTR website, and my own testing with SeamlessAccess and GetFTR in Dimensions. I have also had the benefit of conversations with Ralph Youngen (GetFTR/ACS), Jason Griffey (NISO), Andromeda Yelton (Harvard), Robert McGrath (ReadCube), and Roger Schonfeld (Ithaka S+R) and I am grateful for their time and expertise. 


Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe

Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe is Professor/Coordinator for Research Professional Development in the University Library and affiliate faculty in the School of Information Sciences, European Union Center, and Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


18 Thoughts on "Why are Librarians Concerned about GetFTR? "

First-world problems. The rest of us just use Sci-Hub or ResearchGate for full text. Emailing the author also works.

To the degree that publishers provide an alternative copy for non-entitled users (see Roger Schonfeld’s GetFTR piece), I hope GetFTR helps address the global inequities in access. Also, I could see this tech helping to enable access in programs like Research4Life as well. Not a full solution but potentially useful.

Agreed. A big objection I’m hearing is that this approach could serve to further entrench control over content. Libraries just aren’t clamoring for a more sophisticated paywall.

At my institution, we are working towards a world where the user’s location and institutional affiliation(s), if any, will be less relevant to the question of a user gaining access to content. Directing only a small percentage of the world’s most privileged users to a walled garden (as beautiful as it may be) excludes lower-resourced and less-well-connected folks. Many of us are very wary about engaging with approaches that reinforce that kind of control over information, especially when we are a major producer of the knowledge.

A relatively small point in the scheme of Lisa’s excellent piece, but I’d like to clarify that PLOS is not part of the advisory board for GetFTR (we have asked for this to be corrected in their outreach). The original initiative was presented as one that would ultimately solve problems of access to ALL institutional benefits including the thorny challenge of recognizing institutional deals that support OA publishing. This is very much of interest to us to improve OA workflows for authors and institutions as well as publishers and we have participated in one discussion. In PLOS’s vision of the world, GetFTR is unnecessary as the complete literature would be open access.

Thanks for sharing this Alison. It sounds like GetFTR is quite a bit different from what was originally discussed!

I think it has always had broader goals around seamless access – of which we are fully supportive and look forward to seeing developed.

Lisa, thank you for thought-provoking piece on GetFTR. As one of the founding members behind the service, I want to make a few comments on your post.

Speaking for myself, you are correct that I’m surprised by some of the debate happening in the Tweets you link to, but I’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the positive comments and overall level of interest from a wide variety of stakeholders that we’ve received. Surely, publishers getting together to provide a single endpoint for their entitlements services combined with a simple way to pull the best available copy directly from the rightsholder is a long overdue piece of the scholarly communication infrastructure.

But alas the devil is in the details. Some theories and observations circulating about the motives behind GetFTR and the way it works are inaccurate and I would like to address those directly here (we have also done so on the GetFTR website here – ):

>Librarians should not distrust the service out of concerns for patron privacy or disruption to their link resolver implementations (read more at the link above).

>Also, GetFTR never displays a red signal. The service has an “affirmative” bias, only displaying links when the researcher benefits from them. There is no intention or ability to declare “no access” through the service.

Many critiques in your post are with the federated authentication protocol itself. This is an ongoing discussion which sits slightly outside of GetFTR. However, I hope that a compelling use case such as a popular 3rd party discovery service using GetFTR to transform itself into not only a search but a search & retrieval solution (through the library’s subscription) is a compelling use case to work through these issues with renewed energy. GetFTR is designed to level the playing field for discovery services and usher in a new era of innovation that benefits researchers.

You raise excellent points that the GetFTR team hadn’t considered deeply enough. For example, the ease with which libraries can register their SAML service to a wide variety of content providers is a clear gap that needs to be addressed. I like your idea of working with organizations like the InCommon Federation to try and move this forward. There has been much conversation around the “appropriate copy” problem, particularly when a library uses an aggregation service that also hosts content in addition to that on the publisher’s platform. These are great points that need more thought and additional perspectives, and we will be taking them back to our advisory board as we move closer to full scale implementation.

Finally, I will address the participation question. The five founding houses set out working on this together because we felt the problems that Roger pointed out in 2015 were largely of our industry’s own making. ( After 20 years of having journals primarily consumed online, we publishers still hadn’t managed to provide easy reliable access to the latest content for entitled users.

It is still early in the overall timeline for GetFTR and our choice to “formally” announce in the technical pilot phase is very much in the spirit of garnering broader participation and getting more feedback. The technical viability of the distributed architecture of GetFTR was a legitimate question that needed considerable vetting, including writing actual code, before announcing this initiative. This is exactly the right time to embrace the community and we will certainly be broadening the advisory group going forward to include library stakeholders.

I look forward to more of this great dialogue in the future. Best, Todd

Todd, Thank you for the comment here as well as the post on the GetFTR website. I appreciate you and the team taking time to review these concerns from the library community and address them. Clearing up confusions is important to our collective enterprise of serving researchers.

The comment that GetFTR has no intention or ability to display a “no access” message is surprising though in light of Roger reporting on the “red” signal in his piece last week, saying “GetFTR is intended to be entirely invisible to the user other than an array of colored buttons indicating that the link will take them to the version of record, an alternative pathway, or (presumably in rare cases) no access at all” ( And, the slides from the presentation given at the STM Meeting includes this user message: “Your institution does not provide access to this article, however an alternative is available” (Slide 11 –

Nonetheless, I’m pleased to know that going forward to implementation there will be affirmative bias for only reporting what access there is rather than what there is not. As we progress forward to eliminate stumbling blocks to access, introducing new confusions is definitely something we all want to avoid!

Finally, it is great to hear, especially, that GetFTR will be broadening the advisory group going forward to include library stakeholders. I think the project will benefit from the frontline perspectives that librarians can offer and their experiences working collaboratively with access brokers and discovery layers on content access pathways. I’m know you have your respective publisher library advisory boards, etc. to tap into but do let me know if I can assist. Best, Lisa

Lisa, what an interesting observation that what we viewed as the general capability for a content provider to serve a “full text” article of some sort (e.g. never an abstract) to unentitled users would be perceived as a form of “no access.” I see your point. This needs more thought on the GetFTR side as it may affect the future requirements of the API in order to best serve the library discovery space. I’ll add this to the list with the “available copy” issue as key questions to address in the next phase. We really appreciate your and Roger’s time and engagement on this, prompting such a constructive dialogue about how to take things forward. And thank you for your offer to advise. We will take you up on it!

Best, Todd

Thanks Todd. I imagine that we each see things differently from our different perspectives and past experiences. Bringing those perspectives together is very useful.

You think you have problems? Now imagine the difficulties faced by a researcher who is not affiliated to any academic institution! (Yes, we do exist, especially in the humanities.) This is where libraries ought to be able to offer real support with both current awareness and access, but few seem to be taking it on.

I’m not exactly sure what you are hoping for but in my experience many libraries provide quite a bit of attention to this issue. For example, my own public university library offers a library card to any adult resident in the state. And, libraries work very hard to secure walk-in access privileges for our online databases and e-content.

Yes there are many of us “independent scholars” not served by current library systems and it isn’t looking like there is a chance of our access to information getting easier anytime soon.

Are there any current initiatives from libraries, or library consortia, on developing such access technology themselves? Surely in Universities, they have access to the greatest minds. Meet competition with competition? (honest question)

There are many efforts underway. As Todd Carpenter/NISO would remind us, Seamless Access has involved all parties, including libraries (not to the level all would like but they have been involved). FIM4L: Federated Identity Management for Libraries is another effort ( Springer Nature and ResearchGate have also worked out some sort of entitlements agreement; I do not think libraries were involved though library subscriptions are the basis for the access rights ( All efforts put into operation have improved access in some ways and created complications in others. Open access publishing is sometimes seen as the solution but of course that doesn’t address entitlements for services or features that work over the top of that content.

Thank you. I wasn’t aware of many of these. FIM4L does look promising.
It will be great if universities pool their own scientific wealth (i.e. human and technical) to create solutions, and then license them to the industry.

The excitement around GetFTR should not hide the fact that the questionability of authentication via this model is only part of the problem. As Cody Hanson has pointed out, publishing platforms fundamentally undermine patron privacy by using appropriate technology to identify each user individually and track them across devices and sessions:

This user tracking generates moving images of each individual scientist in his or her daily work, which are exchanged with a large number of third parties for economic exploitation. Since these procedures do not require authentication, they also work with Open Access (PLOS is included). Related services such as ResearchGate also use user tracking. Authentication procedures such as Seamless Access only serve as an additional security measure in order to be able to record the behavioural data of the observed scientists as comprehensively as possible.

Publishers thus endanger interests worthy of protection in several respects:
– Freedom of information and personal rights of scientists are ignored
– As the data is exchanged, scientists working in already critical contexts such as climate research and animal testin may be put at additional risk
– The interests of the research institutions are violated: if, through data exchange, commercial competitors are informed about each research project in its earliest preliminary stages, they will be quicker in filing patent applications.

So I don’t understand how librarians can still say that publishers and libraries are partners and work together in a spirit of trust. Libraries are interested in service. Publishers expect money, just as you expect light when you press the switch. The way GetFTR has been prepared and presented finally shows that publishers, who have long since moved away from content marketing and towards data analytics, now feel they no longer need libraries. The libraries have done their part, they can go.

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