Where next for resource licensing?
Five hours of presentations and discussion about scholarly resource licensing probably doesn't strike most people as a 'good day out' but, actually, yesterday's joint JIBS/Eduserv Where next for Resource Licensing? event was a surprisingly enjoyable and interesting experience.
My live-blogged notes of all the talks are available on eFoundations LiveWire. On that basis, I won't go into the details of any of the talks here. Rather, I'll focus on my overall impressions and thoughts (all of which is very much a personal view)...
Firstly, the academic landscape is changing, both in terms of student expectations and in terms of the nature of university 'business' practice (e.g. greater intra-UK and international collaboration around course delivery). A number of the talks provided evidence for this. Now, of course, we already knew that the landscape was changing... but it doesn't do any harm to keep reminding ourselves of how (and how much) and it was particularly pleasing (for me) to see Owen Stephens (who gave the opening keynote) quoting a couple of the speakers (Paul Golding and Chris Sexton) at our recent symposium by way of evidence.
Secondly, there is something of a tension between wanting to grow the complexity of our resource licences (to take account of newly emerging business practices and user groups for example) and the desire to consolidate, and indeed grow, our existing use of a small number of 'model' licences. (Clearly, this is an area in which the Eduserv Licence Negotiation team has had a big impact over the last 10 to 15 years). In theory, the emerging technical possibility for machine-readable licences (Mark Bide of EDItEUR gave an interesting talk about ONIX-PL for example) means that we can leave software to deal with making access decisions based on a growing collection of different licences. Yet there seemed to be little appetite for this in the room. (Indeed, I'm not even sure such a scenario is really possible or effective for a variety of reasons). As a counterpoint, my colleague Martyn Jansen put forward some suggestions in the final talk of the day to simplify the existing standard Chest Agreement, both in terms of having a smaller number of classes of users and in terms of simplifying the types of use allowed. For my part, this feels like a sensible way forward.
Thirdly, the idea of allowing 'walk-in users' in the digital age was called into question. Owen Stephens referred to the whole notion as "stupid" in his opening talk, suggesting that we need to completely revisit what we are trying to achieve by it and, more importantly, talk to publishers about what we want to do. Sticking my neck out a little, my personal take on this is that in the age of the Web and widely implemented federated access management it is somewhat unreasonable of academic institutions to expect publishers to provide any access to digital resources by walk-in users. But perhaps I'm just being naive about the issues here?
Fourthly, there was some discussion around overseas students. Louise Cole of Kingston University noted, with some irony, that in some cases walk-in users with no affiliation to the institution can get a better deal in terms of access to resources than registered students of that institution who happen to be based overseas. Again, I'll stick my neck out with a personal view (quite possibly a view not shared by my colleagues here!). Geography has become irrelevant and should play no part in our licensing deals. A university with 6000 undergrads should be dealt with as a university of 6000 undergrads, irrespective of whether 3000 of them happen to be based overseas. If this gives publishers problems in terms of pricing across different geographic markets, get over it. The world is largely flat.
And finally, another personal view about something that didn't really come up during the day (at least until drinks in the pub afterwards!) but which increasingly struck me as the day progressed. We seem to be hitting something of a disconnect between theory and practice in this area - which is probably something that neither institutions nor publishers really like to acknowledge. On the one hand, we have relatively complex discussions around licensing terms and conditions, coupled potentially with relatively detailed ways of exchanging those licences in a machine-readable form. At the same time we have an over-arching emphasis on security and data protection in the way our access management federation is delivered (in a way that I've not really seen justified in terms of the risk of abuse of the resources being made available thru that federation). Meanwhile, on the other hand (err... back in the real world?) Shibboleth and OpenAthens system administrators are nearly always just setting the simplest kind of "This person is a member of the institution" attribute, passing it to the service provider and having them gain access to the resource as a result.
Are we routinely comparing our technology choices against a measure of the risk we are dealing with? Are we joining up our discussions about new kinds of users and usages in our licences with the same constructs in our SAML attribute sets? And finally, are we taking note of whether people on the ground are actually acting in line with our somewhat theoretical technology-centric positions?
Or is the reality that the people doing the day job are getting by with a just good enough approach and that, actually, publishers are perfectly happy with that provided the university pays the subscription fee?