Friday, July 8, 2016

5 Extensions to help access full text when starting outside the library homepage

2016 seems to the year Sci-hub has broken out into popular consciousness. The service that provides access to academic papers for free , often dubbed "The Napster" of academic papers by media is having it's moment in the sun.

To me though the most interesting bit was finding out how much usage of Sci-Hub seems to by people (either researchers or academics) who have access to academic library services.

In Science's "Who's downloading pirated papers? Everyone", John Bohannon in the section "Need or convenience?" suggests "Many U.S. Sci-Hub users seem to congregate near universities that have good journal access."

Bastian Greshake went even further and asked Sci-hub for logs segmented by University/College IP ranges.  The list of University IP ranges he used to determine whether usage is within campus looks inaccurate to me (eg it is missing out the 2nd biggest University here in Singapore), but it's still a interesting piece of analysis.

The % of usage from each country within University IP ranges varies but it is surprisingly high for some countries like Australia (where just below 20% of Sci-Hub usage comes from University IP ranges).

We can't tell if users with access to academic libraries are using Sci-hub because their library doesn't provide immediate access and they are too lazy to wait for document delivery or worse they just find it easier to use Sci-hub than fiddle with library access!

(As an aside, this is why it is truly a bone-headed move by publishers to suggest Universities introduce more barriers like two factor authentication to access articles. That's going to drive even more people away!)

But I'll bet one reason most users don't use library subscriptions to access articles is because our systems generally don't make it easy to access articles if users don't start searching via library systems (discovery services, databases etc). Roger C. Schonfeld's "Meeting Researchers Where They Start Streamlining Access to Scholarly Resources" is a recent great exploration of these issues, and is unusual because it comes from a publisher and hence useful to explain to other publishers since it comes from one of their own. (Most librarians working in this space are aware of these issues).

Similarly , since the inception of this blog, I have regularly explored and shared various tools trying to close this access gap, some methods I posted on have become obsolete , but new ones have risen to take their place.

This is a summary of the tools I am aware of as of 2016 that can help improve matters, though none are close to solving the whole issue.

1. Proxy bookmarklet - Tried and trusted method

Land on a article landing page off campus and have no access to full text because the site doesn't recognize your institutional affiliation?

A quick click on this bookmarklet and login and you will be proxied and recognised.

Unsure what I am talking about? Have a look at the video below

There are various ways to quickly append the proxy string , but adding via a bookmarklet is still the most popular.

This method is lightweight, works on most browsers including many mobile ones (though the initial setup can be tricky) and you can do some more fancy tricks to track usage but essentially this idea has been around for years. (As a sidenote, the earliest mention I can find of this idea is in 2005 by Tony Hirst of Open University UK)

A quick search in Google or Youtube will find hundreds of academic libraries that mention or offer a variation of this idea though I highly suspect for many it's a experiment someone setup and quickly forgot without popularizing much (with some exceptions).

2. UU Easy Access Chrome extension - A improved proxy bookmarklet in the form of a chrome extension

My former institution heavily promoted the proxy bookmarklet method and it proved very popular. However with high usage came feedback and I soon realized the proxy bookmarklet had several issues.

Firstly, users did not understand why the proxy bookmarklet would occasionally fail. Part of it was that they would proxy pages that made no logical sense (for example trying it on  Scribd, Institution repositories, Free abstracting and indexing sites) because they were taught "whenever you asked to pay for something click the button". They loved it when it works but were bewildered when it didn't.

Failure could also occur for certain resources where the subdomain or even domain were slightly different depending on the country or institution (e.g Lexis Nexis sites) you were from.

Secondly, occasionally the library would have access to full text of a item via another source but they would land on another site where proxying that site would lead to an error.

A very common scenario would be someone landing on a publisher site via Google, but the library has access via a aggregator like Proquest or EBSCO. Users would happily click on proxy bookmarklet, fail and give up thinking the library didn't have access.

While some institutions might see less of such failures (e.g Bigger institutions that have "everything" and subscribe mostly through publishers rather than aggregators tend to work more), in general failures can lead to a lot of confusion and users might lose confidence in the tool after failing many times and not knowing why.

The next idea done by Utrecht University avoids the first issue and provides what I considers the next step in the evolution of the proxy bookmarklet idea.

Utrecht University Library is regularly mentioned and credited for starting the idea of  "Thinking the unthinkable : Doing Away with the Library Catalogue"  and by focusing mainly on delivery over discovery and it's no surprise they are working on ways to improve access.

Their solution is UU Easy Access - a chrome extension , currently in beta.

The chrome avoids the first problem described above where users are confused on when they can add the proxy by natively including a list of domains that can be proxied in the extension and when you land on such pages it will recognise the page and invite you to proxy the page.

You can also try to click on the extension button to proxy any site but it will check against the list of domains allowed and will display a informative message if it's a site that isn't allowed to be proxied.

This is much better than a system that makes you login and then issue a typically cryptic message like "You are trying to access a resource that the Library Proxy Service has not been configured to work."

I've found users sometimes interpret this message as saying the library just needs to configure things and they will then be able to access the item they want.

The UU Easy Access Chrome extension avoid all these problems and like my souped by proxy bookmarklet idea above uses Google analytics to track usage.

Still, installing a proxy bookmarklet is also somewhat clunky compared to installing an extension and less savvy users might not be able to follow the instructions on their own.

Currently UU Easy Access only has a Chrome extension and does not yet support Firefox.

3. LibX - A browser plugin to aid library access

Both methods #1 and #2 above are unable to deal with the fact that a user may have access to full text via another source other than the site they are on. In such a case, adding the proxy will still fail.

Libx a project licensed under the Mozilla Public License can occasionally work around the issue.

Some of the nice features it has include
  • Function to proxy any page you are on (same as the bookmarklet)
  • Support autolinking for supported identifiers such as ISBNs, ISSNs, DOIs,
  • autocues that show availability of items on book vendors sites like Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and 
So for example if a page has embedded a indentifer like DOI or PMID, it will be hyperlinked such that when you click on it, you will be sent to your library's link resolver and redirected to the appropriate copy that you can access where-ever it is.

Sadly a lot of the functionality over the years as depreciated and/or now only work with libraries using Summon

Libx currently supports Firefox and Chrome and has a nice Libx edition builder to help libraries create their own version.

4. Google Scholar button - Finding free and full text

So far the solutions we talked about only tries to get the user to subscribed articles. But with the rise of open access (a study found that 50% of papers published in 2011 were freely available by 2013), more and more freely available material can be found.

I've also mused about the impact of academic libraries on the rise of open access (here, here and here) , so a extension that helps users find a alternative free version when he lands on a paywall is definitely important.

Most would agree that Google Scholar is probably one of the easiest way to find free full text, just pop the article title into Google Scholar and see if there is any pdf or html link at the side of the results. With their huge index due to permissions from many vendors to crawl full-text and unbeatable web crawling matched with the ability to recognise "Scholarly work", they are capable of finding free articles whereever they lurk on the web and are not restricted to simply find free pdfs on Scholarly sites or institutional repositories.

Add the ability to see if your institution has access to a subscribed version via the presence of a link resolver link (as most academic libraries support Google's Library Link Program), Google Scholar is the ultimate full text finder.

Never used Google Scholar before? Below shows a example of a result

Highlighted in yellow is the free full text, "Find it@SMU Library" - provides full text via the library link resolver

But what happens if you don't start from Google Scholar and land on a page that is asking you to pay and you are too lazy to open another tab and search for the article in Google Scholar? Use the Google Scholar button released by Google last year instead.

On any page, you can click on the Google Scholar button extension and it will attempt to figure out the article title you are looking for, run the search in Google Scholar in the background and display

a) the free full text (if any)
b) the link resolver link (if your library has a copy of the article)

If the title detection isn't working or if you want to check for other articles say in the reference, you can highlight the title and click on the button.

A secondary function is the ability to create citations similar to the "cite" function in Google Scholar.

This extension supports both Chrome and Firefox.

5. Lazy Scholar button - Google Scholar button + extras

Interestingly enough, the idea of using Google Scholar to find full text was already available in this extension called Lazy Scholar. I've covered Lazy Scholar when it was new in 2014.

Created by Colby Vorland a Phd student in Nutrition as a personal project it has evolved a lot and goes beyond just helping you find full text.

In terms of finding full text it does the following

1. Ability to proxy any page (Same as functionality in Proxy bookmarklet)

2. Scrape Google Scholar for free pdfs and link resolver links (Same as functionality in Google Scholar button)

3. It goes beyond Google Scholar by searching multiple places (including, PubMed Central, and Europe PMC) for free full texts.

4. It is also capable of scanning non-scholarly websites to locate scholarly links

5. Unlike Google scholar button, you can set it to auto-detect full text and load without pressing a button

6. Checks for author's email (from Pubmed) , presumably allowing you the option to email the author if all the methods above fail!

It helps you assess the quality of the article you are looking for

1. Provides citation counts from both Google Scholar and

2. Shows impact factor of journal (wonder where this comes from)

3. It does a automated check of Beall’s list of Predatory Journals and warns you

4. Shows any comments if available from Pubpeer

5. Checks if a study has a listing

6. Supports for annotation 

That's not all. Other useful functions 

1. The citation option supports over 900 styles compared to just a handful in Google Scholar button

2. Ability to block non-scholarly sites for a period (for self control)

3. More sharing options to not just reference managers but also to Facebook etc

4. Many more I probably missed out.

Here's how it looks like

I'm really impressed by the variety of functions, the main criticism I can make is that it might be overkill for many users with a very complicated interface.

For example in the above example, under the Full text check, you see 8 options!

The official site says "The green icons are non-PDF full texts that Lazy Scholar is highly confident are 100% free, whereas the yellow icon means that Lazy Scholar is moderately confident that it is a free full text".

The EZ icon next to it allows you to add the proxy string to the URL (like the bookmarklet) and the icon with books is the link resolver link scraped from Google Scholar.

Off hand, I would say it would be cleaner just to offer say the top 3 options (including the link resolver option) and hide the rest under a dropbox menu.

Still it's crazy impressive for a personal project by someone who has no ties to any libraries. The variety of sources/api he pulls from/ use is seriously amazing.

Many are well known such as, Google scholar but some are lesser known systems like comments and annotation systems like Pubpeer, etc or even dare I say pretty obscure like DOAI (Digital Open Access Identifier) that tries to resolve you to find a free version of a paper.


Can we ever make our systems to access articles truly 100% seamless and frictionless? Even within-campus or with VPN (off campus), users can still find it tough to determine if we have access to full text via alternative venues.

Anyone know of other useful tricks or tools that can help?

Perhaps this is one of the other attractions of open access, in a world where open access is dominant, we need not waste time and effort creating these workarounds to make access friendly.

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