Libraries have been authorizing access to subscription content using IP addresses for more than 20 years. With technology shifting so swiftly—particularly given the increasing reliance on mobile access—that process is ripe for change. However, the proposed new standard, RA21, is not without controversy.
Resource Access for the 21st Century (RA21; ra21.org) is “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.” RA21 is a strongly supported commercial effort by content providers and promoted by the International Association of STM Publishing (STM; stm-assoc.org) and NISO, the National Information Standards Organization (niso.org).
NISO, STM, and other supporters claim that existing methods of authentication, based on organizational IP address (or logins to the home organization by qualified users) “no longer [work] in today’s distributed world.” And certainly, it’s clear that today’s highly mobile world created challenges for systems developed long before the rise of mobile technologies that allow for access anytime, anywhere.
RA21 has been presented as “a simple and secure access infrastructure” allowing “key stakeholders [to] explore pathways to move beyond IP-recognition as the primary authentication system.” The RA21 website states that the “RA21 Taskforce will not build a specific technical solution or an industry-wide authentication platform. … “ Instead, its objective is to do the following:
- “Recommend new solutions for access strategies beyond IP recognition practices
- “Explain the standard measures that publishers, libraries and end-users should undertake for better protocols and security
- “Test and improve solutions by organizing pilots in a variety of environments for the creation of best practice recommendations.”
It also notes that all the pilots currently underway use SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language). This provides unique, persistent, but opaque identifiers for individual users that protects privacy.
RA21 is finding at least as many critics in the library world as supporters, particularly regarding the apparent lack of transparency in the development of the standard and the collection and use of user information. To investigate these concerns about RA21, I contacted more than 70 professionals to find out their views.
The STM organization states that its mission is to “create a platform for exchanging ideas and information and to represent the interest of the STM publishing community in the fields of copyright, technology developments, and end user/library relations,” with the goal of being “a body central to the well being of our industry” (stm-assoc.org/communications/press-room). NISO is “an industry-based, nonprofit, non-governmental association” which “fosters the development and maintenance of standards that facilitate the creation, persistent management, and effective interchange of information so that it can be trusted for use in research and learning” (niso.org/what-we-do).
One motivator for RA21 is the rise of Sci-Hub, a pirate web site that provides access to millions of articles with the goal “to remove all barriers in the way of science.” The system ignores copyright and other legal issues in order to provide “the widest possible distribution of research papers, as well as of other scientific or educational sources, [which] is artificially restricted by copyright laws. Such laws effectively slow down the development of science in human society. The Sci-Hub project, running from 5th September 2011, is challenging the status quo. At the moment, Sci-Hub provides access to hundreds of thousands of research papers every day, effectively bypassing any paywalls and restrictions” (sci-hub.tw).
A clearly radical solution to the problems of access to current scholarly publishing, pirated content has pushed major publishers to strongly support the RA21 proposal. But concerns about user privacy and changes to traditional library practices have led many to question the motivations and value of RA21, particularly in the medical and legal sectors.
In the 2016 study from Inger Consulting, “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Publications” (simoningerconsulting.com/nar/how_readers_discover.html), provides a deep dive into the perspectives and practices of more than 40,000 scholars across the globe and how they access articles. Authors Tracey Gardner and Simon Inger found that discovery practices vary across a range of user characteristics, such as type of institution, country, field of study, and national incomes. This challenges information professionals and publishers in terms of providing seamless access. The report also notes a broad variety of discovery methods and strategies that are used to identify relevant material. The concept of one-size-fits-all has been eclipsed by the global expanse of information and an ever-increasing choice of access options.