Finding and gaining access to scholarly articles can be complex. Although libraries work hard to provide the best environment possible for the discovery and access to scientific literature, many gaps remain in terms of content available and in simplicity of use. The eventual transition of the realm of scholarly publishing to open access business models promises broader availability and simplified access. In the short term, however, it presents challenges to the resource management and access ecosystem based on library subscriptions.
Researchers can encounter several different scenarios as they attempt to gain access to a scholarly article, book chapter, or other information resource. Today, the majority of articles are restricted to paid institutional or individual subscribers. An increasing proportion are published as open access and can be viewed by anyone regardless of a paid subscription. Many subscription-based articles are also available in open access repositories. In some cases, the open access copy may be a pre-print, or it may be the final version. Agencies and foundations that fund scientific research increasingly stipulate mandates for any articles or reports based on that research be made available on open access repositories, even if they are also published in subscription-based publications.
Even if the scholarly publishing arena were to achieve a complete transformation to open access models, much of the body of existing literature would remain behind paywalls. Libraries should expect to support multiple models of access indefinitely. This mixed mode of publishing complicates the task of the index-based discovery services that most libraries invest in. These products were originally designed around the prevailing subscription model. They populate their indexes with citation metadata and full text representing the broadest possible array of scholarly and professional content. Most libraries will configure their discovery service to reflect their active subscriptions. A library may opt to suppress resources not available within their subscriptions or enable requests for these items through some type of expeditated electronic document delivery service. Gaps continue to remain in the coverage of index-based discovery services for subscribed resources. These products depend on maintaining central indexes with metadata and full text provided by providers of scholarly content. Although most content providers contribute content to each of the major discovery services, some gaps in participation remain.
Discovery services must also handle open access content. Since all users are eligible to access these resources regardless of institutional affiliation, they can be included in the results returned by the discovery service. The challenge lies in identifying open access content and providing reliable links. Some hybrid journals include both restricted and open access articles. Although NISO has issued a Recommended Practice on Access and License Indicators that includes identifying open access content, its implementation throughout the scholarly publishing and discovery service ecosystem remains imperfect and incomplete.
Another area for improvement in discovery services involves articles published in subscription-based journals that have open access versions available elsewhere. There are services available to identify open access articles, such as Unpaywall Data (formerly known as oiDOI). Link resolvers can be configured to tap into these services, though the implementation of this capability is currently somewhat experimental.
Libraries usually maintain a proxy server to enable researchers to gain access to restricted resources from outside the institutional network. Although initiatives are underway to eventually move to other authentication mechanisms, IP authentication continues to dominate as the most common way to provide access to restricted resources to off-campus users. These proxy services work best when the user accesses the resources through the search tools provided by the library and can thus embed the specially formed links needed to access IP-authenticated resources from outside the institutional network address space. Users will usually need to authenticate to the library or institutional network as they use these proxied links. These access mechanisms can be more difficult to invoke when using Google Scholar from outside the university network.
The fragility of the official processes established for researchers to gain access to the scientific literature has led to the popularity of Sci-Hub, a site which provides pirated copies of articles in violation of the copyrights of publishers. Despite the ethical and legal concerns, Sci-Hub attracts considerable use since it provides access to a large proportion of scientific literature without the complications of access restrictions of the official ecosystem. Sci-Hub currently contains about 65 million articles and represents a significant portion of the content in the scholarly publishing arena. Despite legal actions taken by the multiple publishers, the site continues to function since it operates in international domains outside the reach of legal enforcement. Sci-Hub has caused a major disruption in the scholarly publishing arena. The current subscription-based business model, which turns away those unable to pay, as well as the body of search tools, linking technologies, and access methods that can be difficult to navigate invites disruption.
Publishers and other organizations are increasingly interested in simple, efficient, and legal ways to access these materials. In the music arena, legal services like Spotify eventually supplanted copyright-infringing sites such as Napster. The scholarly communications arena likewise stands in need for new business and technical models able to solve the issues that fuel interest in Sci-Hub.
The emergence of browser extensions designed to facilitate access to scientific articles can be seen as at least one step in the direction of addressing these challenges. These extensions, once installed, can enable access to articles through a single click regardless of publication model. These tools simplify the work of the researcher and benefit publishers. Providing a better experience for finding official copies of articles, including open access versions and pre-prints, helps deter interest in rogue services.
This issue of Smart Libraries Newsletter examines this genre of web browser extensions as a strategy for providing simplified access to scientific literature. These extensions interoperate with existing components provided by libraries, including discovery interfaces, link resolvers, and proxy services. They also supports researchers working with Google Scholar and other non-library search services. The acquisition of Kopernio by Clarivate Analytics illustrates the growing role of these browser extension in the scholarly communications ecosystem.