Solving challenges presented by some organizational discovery services

11 February 2022 | Phil Leahy, key client services manager

It can be tough for library and IT teams to find common meaning in words and terms. They are from very different worlds. This can really get in the way of them working towards shared goals.

Hello, I’m Phil, the key client services manager at OpenAthens. I look after our biggest publishers and libraries, the NHS and overseas consortia. I joined OpenAthens in 2000 and have seen significant changes in access management technologies in the last 20 years. One of the most valuable things I help clients with is communication.

Phil Leahy

One of the most useful things that I, and the wider OpenAthens team, can do is facilitate their conversations to ensure there is mutual understanding. This can be especially valuable in helping prevent challenges arising from how an organisation is presented in a publisher’s organizational discovery service. These are also known as Where-Are-You-From (WAYF) services.

What exactly are WAYF services?

A user wants to access a resource and to do so needs to tell it which organization they are from so they can access the correct subscription. The user finds themselves on a WAYF discovery page where they can search for their organization. When the organization name is clear, they have no problem selecting the right one from a multitude of other names.

Wayfinder - WAYF search

What are the challenges of organizational discovery?

Federated access management technologies such as SAML and Shibboleth have become easier to deploy in recent years. This has led to situations where an IT team and the library team at a single organization have independently built separate and often identically-named federated identity services. So when the user finds multiple options for their home organisation, they are not sure which one to select. If they pick the wrong option, they will not get access to the resource they want to use.

What are the solutions?

Along with my colleague Adam Snook, I was a contributor to a recently published SeamlessAccess white paper: Challenges in Federated Where-Are-You-From (WAYF) Services. The whitepaper unpacks this problem to help raise awareness of some of the ‘moving parts’ of access management tech. I would encourage people to read the SeamlessAccess whitepaper to get familiar with the issue.

When an organization considers its access management strategy, it is not uncommon for them to start realising ‘we didn’t know what we didn’t know’. OpenAthens can help organizations understand these issues so they know about the need for an aligned approach much earlier.

The issue of duplicate organization names in discovery services is a niche problem inside niche technology. Although it is possible to solve the issue, there is no clear best practice for preventing these duplicates. Existing technology cannot easily identify or prevent duplicates. The first step is for different parts of an organization to be aware that this problem exists. It's particularly important for librarians and their IT teams to meet and discuss a way forward.

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