Conference audience

Simplifying access: NISO outlines the work of RA21

09 December 2020 | Todd Carpenter, executive director

Plenary speaker, Todd Carpenter discusses the current complexities around user access to online content and the work of the RA21 initiative to help solve some of the challenges ahead of our 2019 OpenAthens Conference ‘User-centred by design’. Todd Carpenter is executive director of the National Institute of Standards Organisation (NISO).

RA21 and simplifying access

The technology that people use to connect to the internet has changed. So too must the underlying infrastructure for user access to subscribed content and services. Fewer and fewer people are connecting their devices physically to any particular network. In fact, the computer on which I draft this post does not even have an Ethernet port. Nor has it ever been physically connected to any network. Users of content are also significantly more mobile than they formerly had been. In addition to working on their campus or office, users are accessing content from home, coffee shops, airplanes and trains, or at conference facilities.

Why IP-based access is failing users

As more people use tablets or other mobile devices for accessing content, which have mobile connectivity built in, even the notion of a stable network connection upon which one might use Internet Protocol (IP) Address authentication is falling away. These devices often roll over to mobile networks if the Wi-Fi strength diminishes. Frequently, without the user even noticing the network connectivity.

This instability of network connectivity makes traditional IP-based connectivity difficult to manage for those providing access. And it's confusing for library patrons who don’t understand access control systems. And why their authentication allow access one minute and deny access the next.

Complex user journeys and multiple points of failure

The user’s journey from discovering a resource to the content they want to read can be complicated. Be it journal article, book, reference, an abstract and Indexing service, data set, or other service. It requires nearly instantaneous communications between many disparate systems. And also checks on multiple data sources regarding affiliation, access points, and entitlement listings. The infrastructure for providing access via IP address works reasonably well under ideal situations. But that does not mean it works perfectly all the time. It also sits apart from how most of an institution’s access control infrastructure functions.

As noted above, mobile device switching can be a problem. There are many other failure points as well. Such as if a publisher turns off a proxy server because of potential fraud. Over the years, the library, publisher and software communities tried to make interactions as seamless and invisible as possible. Unfortunately, this has led to a fundamental misunderstanding of the access that is provided by libraries. And what problems may be causing the systems to break down.

From a user’s perspective, access was available one minute and then not available the next. Because users are not aware of why the services aren’t available, they turn to other ways to get access. Such as asking friends or colleagues, searching preprint repositories and scholarly sharing sites like ResearchGate. And also less reputable services such as SciHub.

RA21 – a community-led initiative

At its core, the RA21 initiative is built around the desire to make access control via SAML-based identity management systems, like OpenAthens, more seamless and more like the user-experience common on consumer web services.

Resource Access in the 21st Century (RA21) is a community-led initiative led by NISO, the National Information Standards Organization (US) and the International Association of STM Publishers. The initiative is developing community best practice and infrastructure to simplify connecting the library user to their institutional identity provider.

The planned RA21 service will include several elements. The first step in this process will be a linking service that provides a default identity provider lookup.  The next step is a consistent user experience with a button to take a user to their preferred identity provider.  The third element will be a common JavaScript library that supports the button’s functionality.  This entire system will be managed by a non-profit governance body. Because of the sensitivity of the library community regarding privacy, the RA21 Recommended Practice will also include guidance on the SAML attribute release for library-related services. This work was built upon the work of the identity federation community.

Beyond the back-end technology, the RA21 initiative has explored several core components of the user experience. From discovery of their identity provider, to the way in which information is displayed. To the library user both before they have logged in, as well as after. This has built on existing work, including the NISO ESPRESSO recommended practice and work done by the identity management community. As the initiative rolls out, we expect the adoption of these basic rules to become more engrained in the community. And especially by publishers.

What to expect

See Todd's demonstration of the discovery layer service and login experience using a test implementation of the RA21 service.

Photo by wes lewis on Unsplash

library user
Wayfinder gives users a simple login experience

Most library users login experience on publisher websites is very poor. It’s very common for researchers to be confronted with a long list of identity federation or organization names to choose from in order to login. This is where Wayfinder can help.

Wayfinder organizational discovery service