The Google generation’s access to content

Luke Taylor, Agile Team Lead at OpenAthens, discusses students’ expectations when it comes to accessing content, and how user experience needs to be at the forefront of information access

A clash of expectations

Universities expect their students to be independent learners who proactively research their academic interests rather than requiring to be spoon-fed knowledge.

To facilitate self-study, higher education institutions spend millions of pounds on carefully curated journal subscriptions relevant to their student communities and faculty staff.

The associated services they offer to encourage students to find what they need will include reading lists, library search portals, access to subject librarians and advice about how to conduct research from trusted information resources.

Open Access content (pay-to-publish as opposed to the dominant pay-to-read model) is gradually increasing, but the majority of peer-reviewed research still resides behind a paywall.

Despite the availability of modern access management technologies (SAML, OpenID Connect, etc.), most publishers still use archaic methods, such as IP number range restriction, to attempt to secure access. This provides a poor student experience, particularly when trying to find and access paywalled research from outside their university’s data network.

IP number range restriction is also relatively easy to bypass, allowing publisher content to be compromised and hosted on illegal sites such as Sci-Hub.

Students have grown-up with Google which has influenced their expectations of their online experience. The speed and convenience of the most-used search engine has led students to expect to conduct their scholarly research in the same manner as they might if they were purchasing a new smartphone.

University investment and support services for student research, along with the antiquated access management methods still deployed by many publishers, is at odds with the Google generation.

Privacy protected

We are all becoming more aware of the value of our identity and profile information – thanks largely to the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal earlier this year.

Currently, our private, personal information is held by a huge number of service providers, for example, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, etc.

There is movement towards releasing the grip these titans have on our personal information, through a decentralised web that provides information peer-to-peer rather than through the central servers of an internet giant, there to be analysed and monetised. But this is reliant on trust-based identity.

Fast-forward to the future

Students rightly expect to be able to easily find and access trusted information as easily as if with a Google search.

Initiatives currently in progress, such as Resource Access for the 21st century (RA21), are going some way to helping align and simplify pathways to subscribed content. But will this go far enough? How could universities and other research organisations use their collective power, supported by trusted organisations such as OpenAthens, work with content providers to meet student experience expectations?

In the rather more distant future, the advance of technologies such as blockchain (beyond its use for cryptocurrency) and the decentralised web, give the potential for a future world where we can all take control of our personal data, and use the internet to discover knowledge that we can trust – rather like when the internet first came into being.

Until then it is up to the whole scholarly community to collaborate and remove barriers to knowledge and connect people to information.

Luke Taylor will be presenting on this topic at the 2018 Higher Education Conference and Exhibition on 9 October 2018. 

W: openathens.org