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v32#3 10 Principles of Simplifying Access to Keep Libraries at the Center of the Research Process

by | Jul 15, 2020 | 0 comments


by Kendall Bartsch  (CEO, Third Iron

and John Seguin  (Third Iron

In an era where the amount of scholarly information has never been higher, researchers are increasingly expressing a preference for alternative markets such as ResearchGate and Sci-Hub as sources of scholarly content.  This is not, however, because these alternative sources necessarily offer more or higher quality content, but because they offer easier access.  As a result, researchers are increasingly leaving behind traditional routes to content such as publisher sites and library resources.

In response, publishers, libraries and technology companies are developing new initiatives to simplify and expedite access to authoritative content.  With these new services, libraries and publishers look to simplify and speed delivery to their wealth of content.  Third Iron is part of this new access technology wave, having developed our LibKey technology in 2017, reconciling what users experience when linking to scholarly content with what they expect the experience should be.  In this essay, we outline what we see as the necessary components needed to make new technologies successful.

The digitization of content, and the technology infrastructure to support information seeking and retrieval, opened up an unparalleled opportunity for research.  However, getting from the point of information discovery to the digital full text has never been straightforward.  When researchers start their journey with library databases and discovery services, getting to content typically requires using a link resolver.  Studies1 spanning over the past decade, however, have consistently found link resolvers to be a stumbling block in researcher workflow, long complained about as being confusing, requiring too many steps and time consuming to use.  As an example, in recent a study of graduate students’ research behavior, a doctoral student declared, “library access was too difficult and took too many steps.”2

Starting research on the open web, at indexes like Google Scholar, often ends with similar frustration.  Users following links from popular indexes often end up at pages where content is locked behind paywalls with no obvious way to access them, even if the library has full-text access available either from the publisher or an aggregated source.

The response to this seemingly byzantine process needed to reach scholarly content within and outside of the library has been the fast rise of alternative information marketplaces.  Peer-to-peer sharing, content exchange on social media, academic social network sites such as ResearchGate, and pirate sites like Sci-Hub, all share the common trait of providing easy, often one-click access to content.  Need an article?  Post a DOI on r/scholar and others will send the article; post the DOI on Twitter using the hashtag #icanhazpdf and others will direct message to a Dropbox site with the article;  search ResearchGate and you’ll likely find the author has posted a manuscript copy or sometimes the article of record; or go to Sci-Hub, paste a DOI, click search and the article is revealed.  These services thrive not because they contain more or better content than a library but because access to it is so frictionless.

The lessons we take today from these alternative content sites are similar to those taught to the music industry by Napster in 2000.  First, if industry technology delivers content in a way that meets user expectations, it will happily be used;  and second, using authorized access channels will benefit all stakeholders.

We see ten elements as essential in developing a successful technology that will meet user expectations while benefiting researchers, publishers and libraries.  These principles inform our LibKey product development.

First, minimize clicks.  If a PDF or HTML version of the article is available, the link found at the point of discovery should go directly to that full text.

Second, indicate at the point of discovery when content is available.  Links to content from library and open web sources are usually suggestive, indicating that content is likely available, but the user never quite knows what to expect until after they start following the link.  When information is discovered on a webpage, the researcher should not have to guess if access is available or in what format it will be.  Inconsistency leads to distrust in a service, driving users away from the library and towards services that provide a consistent experience.

Third, be content inclusive.  At most libraries, aggregated sources comprise a substantial percentage of full text available to researchers, and open access content sources are growing.  Linking technology should seamlessly incorporate this content, along with what may be available from the publisher directly.

Fourth, be authentication agnostic.  Different libraries use different methods of authentication for varying reasons, such as IP-based methods including proxy servers and VPN systems, as well as federated technologies like SAML.  While some see universal SAML adoption as the future of authentication, given the costs to publishers and libraries to adopt it, the road to universal SAML adoption, if achieved at all, will be a long one.  In the meantime, linking technology should route through whatever authentication system a library is using or even a combination of SAML and IP technologies as is appropriate.

Fifth, keep libraries at the center of the process.  At all times and in multiple ways, library branding should be incorporated into linking technology to visually remind researchers that the library is the source of the content.

Sixth, integrate document fulfillment systems.  When content is discovered that is not available from one’s library, the link should fall back to library services like interlibrary loan and document delivery.  The link to these services should deliver the article metadata in order to make fulfillment requests as close to one-click access as possible.

Eighth, be fast.  Most users expect content to load in less than two seconds.  Delivering this requires technology be built on performant, reliable hardware and software, technologies that can be scaled easily with demand. 

Ninth, make the technology ubiquitous.  Better access to information is in everyone’s interest so the technology that promotes it should be available to be integrated by any company who is interested.

Finally, respect user privacy.  Things such as a user account, caching of user credentials or reading of all web traffic for marketing purposes is not required to link users to content.  Linking technology should only gather what personal information is needed for usage reporting and what is gathered should be clearly disclosed.

For these reasons, nearly a thousand libraries are using our LibKey technology in various ways to simplify access to content and the results are impressive.  Information we are gathering from our own internal data review, user studies from a number of libraries, and anecdotal feedback demonstrate four things.  

First, with our LibKey Discovery service, a direct article link is displayed in a library’s discovery service in addition to the link resolver link.  When given this option, users strongly prefer one-click access to content over the traditional link resolver route.  

Second, removing steps in the access process saves a considerable amount of users’ time.  Having to select content platforms, waiting for different pages to load and hunting around for PDF buttons can take up to a minute or more, compared to just a few seconds with direct access.  Across hundreds of thousands of full text downloads at any given institution, the research process time savings is substantial.  

Third, reducing complexity in the access process leads to fewer library help desk and interlibrary loan requests.  Simplifying access minimizes the amount of time library staff spend assisting users lost in the access process or fulfilling requests for documents that are already part of the library collection.  

Fourth, it is better to meet the researcher where she is than it is to try to change research habits.  Adding direct links to content at points of discovery outside the library keeps the researcher engaged with library services, even when the researcher is not “in” the library.

Our experience is also demonstrating that simplifying access will require some change in stakeholder thinking.  For example, publishers must accept that the great majority of researchers want to go directly to content and bypass the platform;  libraries must recognize that access is correlated to usage, which means easier access will likely lead to more full-text downloads.

Whatever the challenges, the benefits of new access technologies are increasingly clear:  for researchers, it increases efficiency;  for libraries, organically incentivizing researchers to stay within the library ecosystem;  and for publishers, diminishing the incentive for researchers to use alternative content markets.  


1.  See for example:  Chisare, C. et al.  (2017) “Selecting link resolver and knowledge base software: Implications of interoperatbility,” Journal of Electronic Librarianship, 29(2), pp. 93–106. doi: 10.1080/1941126X.2017.1304765 and Imler, B. and Eichelberger, M.  (2011)  “Do They ‘Get It’? Student Usage of SFX Citation Linking Software,” College & Research Libraries, 72(5), pp. 454–463.  doi: 10.5860/crl-141.

2.  Moore, M. and Singley, E.  (2019)  “Understanding the Information Behaviors of Doctoral Students: An Exploratory Study,” portal: Libraries and the Academy, 19(2), pp. 279–293.  doi: 10.1353/pla.2019.0016.


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