Move by journals to ‘seamless’ off-campus access raises privacy concerns

Science | AAAS | 11/15/2019 | Staff
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For a scientist working on their university’s campus, accessing a journal article is painless and invisible, if their institution subscribes. The article automatically appears because the publisher recognizes that the request came from the university’s internet address.

But many researchers gripe that the minute they step off campus and try to access the same article—through a home internet provider, a coffee shop’s WiFi, or a cellphone—they often face a frustrating experience. Even though many universities allow remote users to gain access by logging in through an online portal, many articles don’t clearly flag that possibility, and following the steps can be cumbersome.

Week - Publisher—the - Nature - Family - Effort

This week, one major publisher—the Nature family of journals—launched an effort to make things easier for off-campus readers. It became the first to offer a consistent, streamlined method of access, through a standard button displayed prominently atop articles in its 150 journals. And more publishers, including Springer Nature, Nature’s parent, are expected to roll out the feature over the next year through an international consortium.

But the project has raised concerns among some university librarians. They say it could ultimately allow publishers to obtain personally identifiable data about researchers without their knowledge, and are keeping a close idea on how it evolves.

Respect - Technologies - Collect - Data - Trust

“I think we have learned that with respect to technologies [that collect data], we might need to trust but verify rather than just trust,” says Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe of the University Library at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

Nature’s new feature works like this: Off-campus readers who click the button, labeled “Access through your institution,” are asked to identify their university affiliation, then are taken to a web page at their institution that allows them to access the article by entering their university password. Their institution’s identity is recorded as code in the user’s web browser so that the next...
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