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The Joy of DOI: Publishers Start to Get Serious About Persistent Online Content
    26 July 2004
The Digital Object Identifier (DOI) System that allows commercial publishers to provide persistent links and metadata for published online content is starting to gain some steam in recent weeks as commercial publishers begin to focus on how to adapt this scheme to more of their product lines. DOI promises to offer a world in which content not only doesn't disappear but also can provide a changing array of services when users go looking for these persistent identifiers. Great tools, but what will it take to get DOIs rolling along for a broader array of content? Opportunities abound, but the exploitation of them remains stuck in the limited focus of DOI efforts to date.

The Uniform Resource Locator (URL) addressing scheme that links us to Web-based content has been a gateway to a universe of content unimaginable to anyone used to having to thumb through their local library's Dewey Decimal System card catalog to hunt down content. Instead of having to jot down a cryptic string of characters and mosey through the musty stacks of books and journals, the URL conspired with Web browsers to provide hyperlinks to content with a click of a mouse button. Unfortunately, URLs were never designed to define content entities abstractly, only to provide their current whereabouts. As content moved, old URLs no longer provided authoritative references - leaving researchers and librarians scratching their heads as to how to provide definitive content references to vast swaths of electronic content at their disposal.

Then along came DOI, The Digital Object Identifier System that enables permanent references to online content, no matter where and how it may be stored at a given point in time. DOIs prefixes are issued under the aegis of the International DOI Foundation via a number of worldwide registration agencies, somewhat like obtaining Internet domain names (e.g., "") via a number of domain name registration agents. Once a DOI prefix has been assigned to a specific domain of published content (for example, 10.1036) an individual DOI can then be defined for one or more content items or services (for example, 10.1036/1097-8542.800100), which in turn may be used to link to a summary of the item and links to the item itself and publishers services relevant to that item - the card in the library catalog, if you will (for example, ). Each DOI has a rich set of metadata associated with it to help people understand its origin, classification and one or more URLs pointing to the current online instances of the desired object.  With DOIs publishers have attained a degree of permanent reference for digital content that allows both publishing houses and major institutions to devise rational ways to reference it and to deliver a range of fulfillment and client relations services that can change for an item over time even if the item itself does not change.

This is all good news, but the better news is that commercial publishers are actually starting to use DOIs to support the marketing of professional content. In the past two weeks there have been two significant announcements of publishers extending their core commercial content into DOI-referenced management: that it was making its entire online collection of content available with DOIs and that its Access Science line of reference information is now using DOIs to facilitate content access, sales and service - both courtesy of registration agent Content Directions, Inc. The current count of registered DOIs at CrossRef, the largest DOI registration agent, now tops 11 million. Moves such as this begin to take DOIs from Esperanto-like obscurity to mainstream usage that may give publishers of all kinds the ability to provide more stable value to their content assets in the swirling sea of online content. DOIs offer a great deal of power, but one wonders whether they are actually going to make it as a widely accepted method of content reference. Here are a few reasons why DOIs may - or may not - hit the big time:

  • DOIs service the needs of serious professional publishers of intellectual property. For institutions used to packaging and purchasing scholarly and professional-oriented content, DOIs are a potential boon for those needing to provide reference-worthy content in electronic form. The effort to do so, though, is not always in line with many newer sources of extremely valuable content such as collaboration services that may not be suited for traditional publishing cycles and methods. It's also still a very hand-held process to get DOI infrastructure established through registration agents as interested in providing value-add services for specific publishing communities as they are in getting content available to large audiences. DOIs are poised for strong success in a rapidly broadening range of scholarly publications, but without stronger marketing and support the mantra is likely to remain dim in the ears of most Web-oriented publishers.
  • DOIs can provide a wide range of publisher services without having to rely on Web sites. Though digital rights management has been on the minds of DOI afficionados for many years and DOIs are well-suited to adaptation to the rights management environment, there's not been much forward movement with publishers adapting the XML-based DOI mechanism to content based object distribution beyond a relatively thin smattering of eBooks. This is perhaps one of the greatest potential advantages of DOI in the long run - to be able to provide persistent identification of a digital content publication's "lineage" no matter how many hands a content object may pass through or how poorly it may be indexed or stored locally. Expect DOIs in combination with DRM to be one of the potential "sleeper" combinations that could bust this capability out into broader use.
  • DOIs are compatible with Open URLs. The OpenURL standard for providing transportable content metadata and context-sensitive references to content objects. So, for example, if there's an instance of a publication in your local library, the OpenURL could resolve a query to the local copy of that publication. OpenURLs are compatible with most DOI schemes, and provide much of the same leverage without some of the publisher-oriented overhead. While they so far lack much commercial incentive for their use, they are gaining in adaptation in many circles developing content services, most recently from those backing open access journals and library services. DOIs help established publishers market themselves better, but not focusing on content that's beyond traditional publishing offers an opportunity for newer types of publishing organization to define commercial models via OpenURLs that may not rely on DOIs - and may in the process stymie the movement of broadening the acceptance of DOIs.

DOIs are a great development for publishers, information professionals and their scholarly audiences trying to make sense of digital content in a way that can support both ecommerce and ongoing research. Their progression in to more commercial acceptance in those circles is welcome, but that leaves the rest of the content world wondering when they may begin to have more flexible and persistent access to premium content for a broader array of content. I'm not about to go back to the Dewey card catalog while I am waiting for such developments, but sooner would be nicer than later.

- John Blossom

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