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Richard Griscom is the Associate University Librarian for Collections and Liaison Services and chair of the Penn Libraries discovery team. (Photo from Richard Griscom)

Penn Libraries recently released a new browser extension to allow easy access to Penn-licensed articles and books off-campus. But while many students and researchers have started using the third-party extension, some have raised questions about how secure their personal data is.

The Lean Library Access browser extension was announced on the Penn Libraries blog on Jan. 30. The extension makes it simpler to access online books and journal articles that are licensed by Penn Libraries, such as the digital research library JSTOR. After downloading the extension, anyone with a PennKey can directly open these research articles through an online search rather than searching for the article through the Penn Libraries website.

Richard Griscom, associate university librarian for departmental libraries and chair of the Penn Libraries discovery team, said Penn Libraries received many complaints from students and faculty about the need to find research articles on web browsers and then search for them again on the Penn Libraries website to avoid the paywall. The browser extension was developed by Lean Library, a third-party company that also offers a similar extension at Harvard University.

Students also voiced concerns with the security of people's information stored on their personal computers, particularly in light of the recent Facebook data privacy scandal and because the extension was developed by a third-party.

Third-year Economics graduate student Jincheng Huang said he assumed "if the extension is being provided by the University, it should be safe.” However, he added that he was concerned because the extension was developed by a third-party rather than the University and that the extension could potentially access a user's search history, which could be problematic if sensitive information is stored on the computer.

Credit: Jason Yan

Jincheng Huang is a third year economics graduate student who hasn't "had problems with Penn resources," but thinks that the University-provided extension should be safe.

David Li, a first-year Sociology Ph.D. student, said the extension has helped him find the "right resources" for his research, which he previously spent "a couple hours on a daily basis" searching for library materials. But Li also expressed concerns that third-party companies would use sensitive information for other purposes. 

“If the University is not giving enough supervision, then that could be a huge issue,” Li said. 

Griscom said privacy issues are "unavoidable" with browser extensions because installing an extension grants its developer considerable access to the computer. He added, however, that  Penn Libraries “will be working hard to make sure that personal information are not being used improperly by any third-party company."

Griscom noted that Penn Libraries had reviewed the Lean Library privacy policy and discussed concerns with the company, making them "entirely comfortable recommending the extension to the Penn community."

Credit: Eliud Vargas

David Li is a first year sociology PhD student whose research process was aided greatly by the new extension.

The extension only works on computers and on the major internet browsers: Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Edge. Griscom said there are currently no plans to expand access to other browsers. However, he said Lean Library is working to develop an app to allow access through tablets and smartphones.

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