Why terminology in access management needs to be more … accessible

Recently, I was introduced to something called Domain Driven Design (DDD). There’s a great book on the subject by Abel Avram and Floyd Marinescu available for free at<…;. One of the more intriguing concepts from DDD I found described in the book is the ‘ubiquitous language’.

The principle of the ubiquitous language is to allow all parties to understand each other through the use of a shared set of terminology. That’s all well and good for our development projects, but why should publishers care? Isn’t this problem of language confusion just an issue for the development community? Well, no…

The fact is, terminology causes all sorts of problems in the publishing space, particularly in the area of access management, where it is a major bugbear for librarians and their users.

Two types of terminology confusion

If you read our previous post about access management you’ll see that one item on librarians’ wish lists is a shared terminology. A shared terminology would help to reduce some of the friction we all experience when the different technical vocabularies, that of the publisher and that of the librarian, come into contact – something which is only exacerbated by the sheer number of variant terms used in different libraries and different publishing houses.

So how do these confusions arise?

Terminology confusions are of two basic types:

  1. People use multiple words or phrases to mean the same thing
  2. A single, widely used term means different things to different audiences

Open Access is a good example of the second. When people use this term, they could mean a number of things by it – including Gold OA, Green OA, Libre, etc. I have frequently had conversations with publishers during the course of which it has slowly become clear they are talking about one particular variant of OA, where I had in mind quite another!

Another example of type 2, more closely related to access management, is the term Gracing. This refers to the practice of granting subscribers a ‘grace period’ after the official end date of a subscription, during which print copies continue to be delivered – or in the case of an online resource, access continues to be granted. This practice is based on the hope or assumption, presumably, that renewal has just slipped the customer’s mind, and that a relaxation of the end date will build some goodwill and also help (along with carefully worded reminders) to jog the customer’s mind into re-ordering. It might also gives salespeople an opportunity, having spotted a potential lost renewal, to go in with some compelling stats that prove usage, or other blandishments, to secure the relationship.

The problem is that every publisher has a different way of managing grace – and it is never very transparent on the publisher’s website what their gracing policy is: some will give you a week, some might give you up to three months. This can be further complicated by the fact that some publishers sell products on a meterage basis – so you might buy a package of a thousand downloads, and be ‘graced’ another half a dozen sessions once your thousand has run out.

This lack of transparency is undoubtedly part of the psychology of the sales process, and one of the felicities of the pre-digital world that has translated badly to a more binary (and perhaps more graceless) age. For us, such fuzziness only serves to bung up the machine.

Librarians end up signing contracts that airily refer to gracing as if it were a thing – whereas in actual fact it is all local custom; highly variable in its scope and terms from publisher to publisher, and even from title to title. Yet worse is the fate of software architects building access management systems, faced with the task of modeling something slippery and tacit and highly variable, and making it into something hard and codeable that can be used across multiple publishers and titles.

Confusions of the first kind

The other side of the coin is where you have a lot of different terms for what is essentially the same thing. This is the type of language confusion that proves much more difficult to deal with, and it affects the end-users more profoundly as well.

The particular example that comes to mind here is Shibboleth.

I imagine most of this blog’s readers already know about Shibboleth, but that won’t necessarily be the case for a typical researcher or student presented with the option to log in with Shibboleth, particularly in the US, where uptake has been lower than on the other side of the Atlantic. Added to this low recognition is the problem that on many sites they might not see ‘Shibboleth’, but ‘OpenAthens’, or just ‘Athens’ instead.

OpenAthens follows the bulk of the Shibboleth protocol: it works in exactly the same way, and requires the same details to be entered by the user. From a user’s point of view, it amounts to the same thing. Anyone who knows the complex history of the relationships around federated authentication in the UK will know that it is not the same thing. However, without getting into the fine detail of how the present situation arose, let’s just take a step back and draw a ‘veil of unknowing’ over that tortuous history, and ask ourselves, how does it look to the inexperienced user?

Baffling, is the answer.

The problem that arises from this clash of terms is that people often don’t know how to log in with their institutional details: it is information that they cannot translate because the terminology is so obscure. This in turn provides a challenge for librarians, most of whom have to give training at the beginning of the year to new students, and who can’t know all of what their trainees are going to encounter on the many different sites they might try to use across the scholarly and academic realm.

If there were just a standard term for what they were trying to do, things would be so much simpler: if the industry could agree on a consistent wording such as – for example only – ‘log in with your Shibboleth institutional identifier’, then libraries could consistently provide that message. Instead we persist in confusing people, and also the people who are paid to help them through their confusion as well.

What suffers, ultimately, is usage of publisher content, and subscription renewals (with or without the mysterious grace period).

The anti-social contract

I could cite a number of similar examples. ‘Concurrency’, for instance, means the same as ‘seat cap’ and ‘session cap’. As in the gracing example, librarians are in the position of having to understand what all the different publishers mean when they use these terms – and a host of other terms – in order to be able to do their jobs properly.

They can all too easily sign a contract thinking that they have understood all the terms in it, when in fact their understanding of the terms and the publisher’s understanding might be completely different.

And librarians are often guilty themselves of inconsistency. The truth is, every publisher and every library does things slightly differently, and because of this there is a huge potential for miscommunication, and debate and discussion that goes nowhere because people are talking at cross purposes.

Is it too much to ask that we could agree on some standard terminology?


I don’t think this is particularly a publishing problem, but a publishing manifestation of a common problem in the wider world. Technology and globalization mean that we are all communicating with a much wider variety of people than we ever have in the past. The move towards digital across many fields of professional practice has brought entirely new skillsets and ways of thinking into publishing – a 350 year-old industry whose proud old publishing houses defend with understandable zeal their right to do and speak about things ever-so-slightly differently to the way things are done and spoken about in the house next door.

But questions such as access are matters of infrastructure – and infrastructure often requires that we agree to standardize the wheelbase of our railway carriages, so they can all run on the same rails. Digital by its very nature requires clarity, specificity and a certain commonality.

I don’t think there’s a particular answer to this problem. That would be a pretty big ask given the number of players involved, the size of some of them, and the deep history of the publishing industry itself – but everything has to start somewhere.

We all need to get better at talking to each other. And agreeing on what terms mean upfront. And not being afraid to say, this is what I understand by such and such – do you understand the same thing?

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