Academic Journals Get ‘Shadow IT’ Treatment

4 min read
  • Education
  • Information Technology
  • Process Automation

A researcher’s efforts to make academic papers more freely available to other researchers—but which the publishers of those papers say is theft—is demonstrating to IT some interesting principles about usability and customer experience.

Subscription prices to the journals that publish academic papers are going up, leading to an increasing number of universities that no longer subscribe to the journals. Instead, researchers would ask colleagues or on Twitter for a copy of the paper, and a researcher who had access to it would send it.

In 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, created Sci-Hub, a website that now contains more than 48 million academic papers available for free to the public. She told Simon Oxenham at BigThink that she was basically automating the manual process of sharing copies of scientific papers individually. (A similar parallel effort was going on at the same time with Internet developer Aaron Swartz.)

Oxenham explains that the Sci-Hub website works as follows:

  1. It attempts to download a copy from the LibGen database of content.
  2. If LibGen does not already have a copy of the paper, Sci-Hub bypasses the journal paywall in real time by using access keys donated by academics.
  3. After delivering the paper to the user, Sci-Hub places a copy in LibGen, where it will remain accessible in the future.

The search functionality is typically faster and easier to use than those of the costly journal sites themselves – sites that universities must pay millions of dollars for. In fact, it reportedly works so well that hundreds of thousands of papers are being downloaded per day to a total of 19 million visitors, according to Elbakyan.

The result is a system that is not only free, but is easier to use, giving researchers better access to papers and promising better innovation in the future. Naturally, the publishers of these journals aren’t happy about her efforts. “In one fell swoop, a network has been created that likely has a greater level of access to science than any individual university, or even government for that matter, anywhere in the world,” Oxenham writes.

Publishers of academic journals are discovering what IT organizations have learned: if IT makes employees’ jobs too difficult to do—whether through onerous security policies, burdensome procurement processes, or unrealistic expectations—those employees don’t necessarily fall meekly in line. Instead, they set up parallel “shadow IT” systems – hardware and software used by company departments, outside of the hardware and software controlled by the corporate IT organization.

Whether employees turn to shadow IT because they don’t want IT to know what they’re up to, or because they find IT controls too arduous, it’s becoming pervasive. According to a recent study by Frost & Sullivan, the average company utilizes around 20 SaaS applications, with more than 7 unapproved by IT. “That means you can expect that upwards of 35 percent of all SaaS apps in your company are purchased and used without oversight,” the study says.

An IT organization that sees too many people setting up shadow IT should take this as a signal. If employees aren’t using the system that’s been set up by IT—and particularly if they’ve set up an alternate system to work around it—there’s something wrong with the original system. What is it about the new system that’s preferable? Find out what it is about the alternative that makes people happier to use it, and incorporate those features into the approved system.

The one thing you can’t do? Expect shadow IT to go away just on your say-so. Pick your battles, focusing on the shadow IT uses that most put the company at risk. For example, you probably don’t want users to set up personal cloud services that fork corporate data, putting both its security and integrity in jeopardy.

It’s clear that, as with music, if users aren’t happy with the way that IT provides a service, people will find a way around it. That’s essentially what’s happened here. Comparing the free, easy-to-use systems they see in other parts of their life, such as Pandora and Spotify, academics have found a workaround to expensive, difficult to use academic research systems.

“As history shows, once a source of media becomes freely accessible to masses—like Napster did for music in the 1990s and 2000s—it can trigger a massive restructuring of the underlying industry,” writes Brian Resnick in Vox.

It seems obvious that academic research is well on its way to such disruption. But as other industries ranging from taxicabs to hotels have found out, no industry is impervious to disruption. Organizations such as Accenture have advised all companies, large and small, to think of themselves as digital businesses and consider how they can use workflow in digital transformation.

For example, companies need to think about ways to use technology to reinvent themselves, rather than simply incorporating technology into the existing organization, Accenture advises. In other words, don’t just use technology to automate existing manual processes, but look for ways in which digitization of those processes can enable you to streamline workflow by eliminating steps that are no longer needed.

Developing such faster, more efficient workflow processes may be the best way to eliminate your “shadow.”

Simplifying processes is only one way to get more done. Get your copy of The Simplicity 2.0 Guide to Working Smarter—featuring the best content from the Pearl award winning blog, Simplicity 2.0—and learn other creative ways to simplify the work you do every day.

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