Sunday, 3 February 2008

The importance of pronunciation...

UCISA Executive meeting in London last Thursday. Several interesting items discussed. The main one concerned the way Universities access electronic journals. The main technology used to authenticate to online journals has been Athens, but institutions are being encouraged to use an access management system called Shibboleth. I’m not going to explain the technology behind either of them – far to complex for me to attempt, but I’ve put links in for anyone who’s interested in finding out more.

The origin of the name Shibboleth is interesting, and why would anyone use it for an authentication system? Well, it originates from a Hebrew word meaning the part of a plant containing grains. According to the Book of Judges in the Bible, it was used to distinguish between members of two groups, the Ephraimites and the Gileadites, the Ephraimites having no “sh” sound in their dialect. The inhabitants of Gilead defeated the tribe of Ephraim, and the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the River Jordan back to their own land. In order to identify (and then kill) them, the Gileadites merely asked refugees crossing the river to say the word Shibboleth. If they said it correctly they were OK. If they said Sibboleth, they were killed. Apparently 42,000 met their death because of this. In computer terms, the word is now used to mean a way of testing who you are, ie authentication and then authorisation to use services.

After that interesting diversion, back to the UCISA meeting! The reason we were discussing this, is that it is the strategy in UK universities to move to Shibboleth as a way of authenticating to e-journals, away from the current system of Athens. However, there has to be a transition stage where both are in use because many publishers have not moved to Shibboleth. Athens and the gateway service allowing institutions using Shibboleth to also use Athens, is provided to the community by Eduserve, and paid for by JISC. However, recent discussions between JISC and Eduserve on the costs of the gateway have broken down with no agreement. We were discussing what to say to the JISC, and what advice to give UCISA members on the bet way forward.

Phew, hope you got all of that – it really is quite complex, but there’s lots of info around if you’re interested in finding out more.

I’m off on holiday tomorrow to Tenerife for a week, so I doubt that I’ll be blogging until I get back – unless I post a few holiday snaps!

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