Are you an iOS user? Access scientific articles in your device without hitting a paywall

Another year has passed and left a lot of good news, investigations and developments for CORE. Today we would like to tell you about one of them – Open Access (OA) Helper, an application developed for iOS mobile devices by Claus Wolf. We asked Claus to tell us how he came up with the OA Helper and here is what he answered.

When, where and why did you decide to develop OA Helper app? 

In October 2018, I learned about how open access discovery services connect users to legal Open Access copies of otherwise paywalled articles. The available plugins weren’t available for Safari, my preferred browser, so I decided to give creating one a try.

After the macOS version was published in November 2018, I started creating an iOS version, which was launched by the end of 2018, and which introduced me to many useful services and APIs of core.ac.uk. To me it was an obvious choice to integrate CORE Discovery as soon as that became available.

What inspired you?

Open Access fascinates me in much the same way as Open Source does. It creates a level playing field on which innovation can be built, or from which you can learn. Creating a tool that would support Open Access for macOS & iOS users thus seemed like a worthwhile endeavour and it turned out to be a great learning opportunity for myself.

Who is the target audience?

Anyone with an interest in scientific literature and a desire to use Safari on macOS or iOS / iPadOS. 

Is it available only at macOS App Store and iPhone/iPad App Store?

Software distribution for iOS (iPhone / iPad) must happen via the App Store and for macOS it is a convenient mechanism. Open Access Helper (OAHelper) is free and will remain so.

What do you think is most important about this work and the collaboration with CORE?

Without CORE there would be no iOS version of OA Helper, and I was overwhelmed by the generosity with which CORE team has provided me with access to CORE APIs and responses to my questions. It is that openness, which makes this app possible.

But maybe most important of all, no matter how many lines of code my applications might have, there are many more lines of code at your end to create the environments leveraged by my application. Thus what I have done is nothing, in comparison to what your teams do every day.

At the same time, I can focus on supporting a relatively small number of users, while your teams can focus on serving the majority of users. The spirit of open collaboration means that I can incorporate the main services CORE Discovery, unpaywall.org, & Open Access Button in one application, attempting to serve users best.

First OAHelper used only CORE API? Then you decided to integrate CORE Discovery extension?

The app would not be approved unless the containing app had value. CORE API provided me with such value, which could be leveraged quickly and in keeping with the core mission of the extension, to help users find Open Access.

When CORE Discovery was released as a Chrome / Firefox extension I took a look at what it did, and after reaching out to your teams, was allowed to incorporate it into my tool, giving OAHelper a leg up, as it now checks both unpaywall.org and CORE Discovery, to ensure that users never miss out.

Lastly, and that’s why we are talking, I enabled CORE Recommender within the iOS app, which makes the app even more helpful and I am considering adding it to the macOS Safari Extension as well.

This makes my app have access to all the best options. There is legal Open Access copies from unpaywall.org and CORE Discovery. There is the opportunity to request a copy to be made Open Access via Open Access Button and then there’s your recommender system, to offer similar Open Access research.

By combining all these services in one app, I hope to create an environment, in which users never have to feel stuck.

CORE Discovery was a very straightforward implementation, it took me less than an evening. CORE Recommender had me invest a bit more time. The endpoint returns HTML rather than JSON or XML. This makes a lot of sense for the main application of the tool (repository systems), but makes usage in iOS a bit more interesting.

What are or have been the main challenges of this implementation you had to overcome? How have you overcome them?

For simplicity within my app I decided to build some middleware, which will transform the HTML to a streamlined JSON response, which is easier to handle.

The responses also can take a few seconds to come through, so I added a one week cache to my middleware, which based on the DOI will basically just return the JSON it created previously. Open Access Helper isn’t really used heavily enough to benefit much of it, but it made testing way better.

If there was one thing you could add to it, what would it be? 

I would love to add more translations to both apps. There are downloads from all over the world now, but only English and German are currently supported. If anyone out there reads this and would be interested in translating a few simple strings into their native language, I would love to add support for your language too!

How do you see (the app) developing in the future? 

Sadly I get very little feedback from the community, so I am not sure what should be next. For example there is a feature, that lets you “bookmark” an article and sync these bookmarks via iCloud to all your devices. It is extremely privacy conscious, as I don’t see any of the data, yet it is potentially quite useful. The basic premise is that you could find an Open Access Copy (or even a paywalled copy) of an article on your phone, and then access it from your iPad or Mac. Considering that reading a PDF on a phone is a bit of a headache, I hoped that some users would like it too, and maybe they do – sadly I don’t have enough data to tell me that for sure. Without this type of data, it is very hard to focus on what is next, but I am also quite lucky. As the application is mostly a clone of the key functionality of your tools, I can take my inspiration from you. Having said that, I would be thrilled and delighted to hear from the community as to what they desire!

What opportunities do you see in the future related to this?

Mobile usage is bound to increase and as more and more users will replace a traditional laptop with a tablet, I hope that the main Mobile OS vendors (Google / Apple) will rethink their stance on extensions for mobile browsers.

The beauty of the Safari extension, just like CORE’s own Chrome & Firefox extension, is that it proactively signals to you, if there is value to be had, while the iOS version requires the user to seek out the app’s value by tapping a few buttons. As you can imagine that is quite a difference and I look forward to when that might no longer be needed, even if that meant that my apps were no longer needed.

Claus Wolf mentions:The spirit of a common goal enables me to incorporate the key services relating to OA Discovery in a single application. The latest inclusion of CORE Recommender enhancing the user experience further, when no OA copy of the desired document is available (yet).”

Dr Petr Knoth, Head of CORE and Senior Research Fellow in Text and Data Mining at the Open University, comments:I am truly delighted for CORE to support projects such as OA Helper. It is great to see our working powering innovation in access to research literature for all.”


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