RA21 Project aims to ease remote access to licensed content

In the two decades since electronic journals started replacing print journals as the primary access to article content, the quandary of how to ensure proper access to electronic articles that are licensed and paid for by the library has been with us.Note 1 Termed the “off campus problem”, libraries have employed numerous techniques and technologies to enable access to authorized users when they were not at their institutions. Access from on campus is easy – the publisher's system recognizes the network address of the computer requesting access and allows the access to happen. Requests from network addresses that are not recognized are met with “access denied” messages and/or requirements to pay for one-off access to articles. To get around this problem, libraries have deployed web proxy servers, virtual private network (VPN) gateways, and federated access control mechanisms (like Shibboleth and Athens) to enable users “off campus” to access content. These techniques and technologies are not perfect, though (what happens when you get to a journal article from a search engine, for instance), and this is all well known.

Stepping into this space is the STM Association – a trade association for academic and professional publishers – with a project they are calling RA21: Resource Access in the 21st Century. The website describes the effort as:

Resource Access for the 21st Century (RA21) is an STM initiative aimed at optimizing protocols across key stakeholder groups, with a goal of facilitating a seamless user experience for consumers of scientific communication. In addition, this comprehensive initiative is working to solve long standing, complex, and broadly distributed challenges in the areas of network security and user privacy. Community conversations and consensus building to engage all stakeholders is currently underway in order to explore potential alternatives to IP-authentication, and to build momentum toward testing alternatives among researcher, customer, vendor, and publisher partners.

Last week and earlier this week there were two in-person meetings where representatives from publishers, libraries, and service providers came together to discuss the initiative. Two points were put forward as the grounding principles of the effort:

  1. In part, the ease of resource access within IP ranges makes off campus access so difficult
  2. In part, the difficulty of resource outside IP ranges encourages legitimate users to resort to illegitimate means of resource access

What struck me was the importance of the first one, and its corollary: to make off-campus access much easier we might have to make on-campus access a little harder. That is, if we ask all users to authenticate themselves with their institution's accounts no matter where they are, then the mode of access becomes seamless whether you are “on-campus” or “off-campus”.

The key, of course, is to lower that common barrier of personal authentication so far that no one thinks of it as a burden. And that is the focus of the RA21 effort. Take a look at the slides [PowerPoint] from the outreach meeting for the full story. The parts that I'm most excited about are:

  • Research into addressing the “Where Are You From” (WAYF) problem – how to make the leap from the publisher's site to the institution's sign-on portal as seamless as possible. If the user is from a recognized campus network address range, the publisher can link directly to the portal. Can clues such as geo-location also be used to reduce the number of institutions the user has to pick from? Can the user's affiliated institution(s) be saved in the browser, so the publisher knows where to send the user without prompting them?
  • User experience design and usability testing for authentication screens. Can publishers agree on common page layout, wording, graphics to provide the necessary clues to the user to access the content?

The RA21 group is leveraging two technologies, SAML and Shibboleth Note 2, to accomplish the project's goals. There are some nice side effects to this choice, notably:

  • privacy aware: the publisher trusts the institution's identity system properly authorize users while providing hooks for the publisher to offer personalized service if the user elects to do so.
  • enhanced reporting: the institution can send general tags (user type, department/project affiliation, etc.) to the publisher that can be turned into reporting categories in reports back to the institution.

Beginning next year organizations will work on pilot projects towards the RA21 goals. One pilot that is known now is a group of pharmaceutical companies working with a subset of publishers on the WAYF experience issue. The group is looking for others as well, and they have teamed up with NISO to help facilitate the conversations and dissemination of the findings. If you are interested, check out the how to participate page for more details.

Within Index Data, we're looking at RA21's impact on the FOLIO project. FOLIO is starting up a special interest group that is charged with exploring these areas of authentication and privacy. I talk more about the intersection of RA21 and FOLIO on the FOLIO Discuss site.

Note 1: I am going to set aside, for the sake of this discussion, the argument that open access publishing is a better model in the digital age. That is probably true, and any resources expended towards a goal of appropriately limiting access to subscribed users would be better spent towards turning the information dissemination process into fully open access. The resource access project described here does exist, though, and is worthy of further discussion and exploration. back to text

Note 2: SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) is a standard for exchanging authentication and authorization information while Shibboleth is an implementation of SAML popular in higher education. back to text