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D-Lib Magazine
January 2004

Volume 10 Number 1

ISSN 1082-9873

Identifiers and Identification Systems

An Informational Look at Policies and Roles from a Library Perspective


Giuseppe Vitiello
Director, Publishing activities
Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome (Italy)

Red Line



In the last decade, there has been a general reshuffle in the documentary landscape. Scientific, Technical and Medical (STM) publishers and aggregators are performing par excellence library functions within their portals (such as Elsevier's Scirus or Ingenta). With the widespread use of ONIX—a standard for exchanging information about published products—even cataloguing could become a function partially falling within the remit of publishers. On the other hand, publishing functions are also being taken over by libraries, as, for instance, when libraries play a role in establishing e-print repositories and open archives. After all, wasn't it a library—the Stanford University Library—that initiated the Highwire Press? And wasn't it a library association—the North American ARL (Association of Research Libraries)—that initiated SPARC, a coalition of universities, research libraries and organizations focused on enhancing broad and cost-effective access to peer-reviewed scholarship as an alternative to commercial publishing?

The publishing and library worlds have entered a phase where what were once competencies and skills specific to one sector are now converging, while their missions are diverging. This trend is perceived with mixed emotions by the library community. There are those who see these changes as a betrayal of traditional library values. To others, the externalisation of library functions is not a departure from core values but rather a management exercise that allows librarians to invest resources in new fields of activities. Sometimes the general reshuffle of roles is witnessed with a sense of dismay. This is probably due to the fact that the library community sometimes feels left out of mainstream developments, with decisions and choices originating outside their sphere of influence.

It is a fact, however, that STM publishers are stepping into documentary tasks and providing library services as an added value to their products. Such changes generally result from a policy shift from a product-based to a service-oriented strategy. In some cases, librarians did not respond quickly enough to external challenges, or failed to interact with relevant professional communities, as new technologies emerged. An example discussed in this article involves identifiers and identification systems.

Traditionally considered a technical exercise, with scant relevance to the information communication "eco-sphere", identification has become a critical element in accessing electronic publications and other intellectual artifacts. Identification is now a fundamental component of what is called the "political economics of information" [1] according to which control of the technical means of accessing resources is just as vital (and sometimes more vital) than control of the resources themselves. In this article, I will review recent trends and developments in Identification Systems (ISs). Rather than technical, my approach will be institution-based. In other words, technical developments and marketing strategies will be examined in light of the policies carried out by the communities responsible for each identifier discussed here. In the area of serial publications, I will also show on what grounds identification is now shifting from the library community to the publishing community, a trend that I feel is marginalising libraries in their ability to exert influence on decision-making processes.

A Review of Identification Systems (ISs)

"Identifiers are names or strings adhering to certain conventions that, if properly employed, ensure uniqueness" [2]. Strictly speaking, Identification Systems (ISs) are merely associated to the designation of a unique publishing or media product. Nevertheless, the need for accessing electronic publications disseminated on communication networks via metadata has made identification only one step—albeit a crucial one—of the more general business of storing and transferring communication packages for bibliographic control, resource discovery, item delivery and electronic commerce. This is why most of the recent reviews on ISs take into consideration the whole of the standard machinery—from the Dublin Core to authority registers, from exchange data models to intellectual property rights management [3]. This quick review of identifiers will be of a more traditional nature and will focus strictly on identifiers used for the published products usually acquired by libraries.

ISBN. Created in 1970 (and standardized by the International Organization for Standardization as ISO standard 2108), the ISBN (International Standard Book Number) is an "intelligent" identifier—i.e., each of its elements is significant—for monographic publications [4]. Used for the compilation of book directories and for book ordering, accounting and circulation, the ISBN has fundamental applications in electronic point-of-sale systems when associated with the EAN (Electronic Article Numbering) barcode. In addition, copyright management systems frequently are keyed to the ISBN. In libraries, the ISBN is used to capture bibliographic records and for lending right operations.

The management of the ISBN is three-tiered: international, national and individual. At the international level, management is based at the ISBN International Agency located at the Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, where both publishers and librarians (according to the country) sit in its Governing Board. At the national level, ISBN management is by national agencies comprised of independent publishers, publisher and/or bookseller associations and some specialized departments within national libraries. The individual level of ISBN management is that of publishers themselves, who assign an ISBN to each of their published books. Fees paid for ISBN assignment are usually minimal, as ISBN agencies generate income from additional services—for example, books-in-print catalogues. When national libraries are ISBN agencies, ISBN assignment is often an incentive for the intake of legal deposit publications.

The current organization of the ISBN network has two main shortcomings: no centralised database and no actionability—i.e., the ability to get to the named resource by clicking on the ISBN. Moreover, the ISBN is reaching the limits of its capacity, and some ISBN agencies will be soon running short of available numbers. A Working Group charged with revising the ISBN standard has recently issued its results. Apart from 13 digits, the revised ISBN will have new EAN prefixes conforming to the GTIN (Global Trade Item Number). Also envisaged is associating some forms of metadata with the ISBN, with a view to creating a common data base of metadata. Still under discussion is whether it might be possible to extend the ISBN to identify fragments of monographic publications (likewise the ISAN standard for audiovisual media).

ISSN. The ISSN (International Standard Serial Number) is a "dumb" identifier—the string contains no information related to the content or the origin of the serial. The ISSN (ISO standard 3297) came into existence in 1975 [5] and is managed at a two-tier level. Internationally, a database holding 1.1 million ISSNs—the ISSN Register—is maintained in Paris by the ISSN International Centre. At the national level, its management is entrusted to ISSN national agencies (currently there are 75 of these). National ISSN agencies can be either a specialised department of a national library or the documentary institution of a national research centre. The policy of ISSN assignment is therefore not straightforward: rather exhaustive when set up by national libraries, it is selective—and limited to scientific serials—when the identifying agencies are research institutions.

ISSN assignment is free of charge, and its uses depend on the policies carried out by national agencies. With EAN prefixes, the ISSN is used for facilitating sales in supermarkets and kiosks. Especially in scholarly communication, it applies to the ordering, management and control of serials and, in libraries, bibliographic search and retrieval.

ISRC. In 1986 phonographic industries implemented the ISRC (International Standard Recording Code), the international IS for audio recordings and music video recordings (ISO standard 3901) [6]. An "intelligent" standard, the management of ISRC is ensured at the international level by IFPI (International Federation of the Phonografic Industry), an organisation representing the international recording industry. There are currently 43 national agencies, each maintaining a national data base, with recording peaks in France, the UK and Nordic countries. The ISRC is used for rights administration and electronic distribution of music.

SICI. The SICI (Serials Item and Contribution Identifier) standard provides an extensible mechanism for the unique identification of either an issue of a serial title or a contribution (e.g., article) contained within a serial [7]. Adopted by the US National Information Standards Organization (NISO) in 1996—but not by ISO—the SICI is operated in conjunction with the ISSN in North American libraries. Ingenta, a leading aggregator of electronic resources, has also adopted the SICI to communicate with third parties. Its use is free of charge. The SICI has no network of agencies at the international or national levels.

ISMN. Similar to the ISBN, the ISMN (International Standard Music Number) applies to printed music. Adopted by ISO in 1993 (ISO 10957) [8], the ISMN is designed to rationalize the processing and handling of printed music entities and their bibliographical data for publishing houses, the music trade and libraries. There are currently 43 ISMN agencies worldwide, and an international ISMN agency is located at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin.

DOI. The DOI (Digital Object Identifier) provides the means for persistently identifying a piece of intellectual property (a creation) on a digital network [9]. A "dumb" identifier, the DOI System has four components:

  • Numbering: assigning an alphanumeric string (a number or name) to the intellectual property entity that the DOI identifies;
  • Description: associating metadata based on the <indecs> framework with the entity that has been identified with the assigned DOI;
  • Resolution: providing resolution services using Internet technologies that make the identifier "actionable" on digital networks (these services are based on the Handle System® and include an open set of protocols, a namespace, and a reference implementation of the protocols) [10];
  • Policies: the rules that govern the operation of the system, in a social infrastructure.

DOI general policy is set by the International DOI Foundation (IDF)—a non-profit organization created in 1998 and controlled by an elected Governing Board in which major STM publishers are represented as well as two professional associations: the International Publishers Association (IPA) and the Association of American Publishers (AAP). DOI assignment, however, is the business of a series of registration agencies (RAs) that provide to the registrant bodies services such as prefix assignment, DOI registration and the useful infrastructure to maintain data. Each of the RAs carries out its own policies and also has its own governing board.

Among DOI agencies, thus far the most successful is CrossRef, which provides a complete service regarding object identification (in particular, identification of articles) in serials and the full-text retrieval of these objects, i.e., reference linking. CrossRef has chosen a structured business model where publishers are charged a fee that varies according to their production rate and the number of objects retrieved. Moreover, an annual deposit fee is required for each DOI. The financial burden is therefore put on producers and not on consumers. Currently more than 250 publishers have joined Crossref (up from 102 in 2001), as have some 40 affiliates (subscription agencies, aggregators) and over 200 libraries (an increase from ten in 2001). Nine million articles (twice as many as in 2001) included in some 9,000 periodicals (5,742 two years ago) are now identified and registered [11].

ISRN. The ISRN (International Standard Report Number) specifies a uniform format for the creation of unique, but compatible, numbers used for the identification, organization and location of technical reports. As ISO standard 10444, ISRN is applied by research bodies and scientific agencies (for example, FIZ Karlsruhe, a non-profit scientific service institution in Germany, and CNRS (the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) in France). The ISRN has no network of agencies at the international or national levels.

ISWC. The ISWC (International Standard Musical Work Code) is a unique, permanent and internationally recognized reference number for the identification of musical works [12]. Adopted by ISO in 2001 (ISO 15707), it is the result of the work carried out by the agencies joining the Confédération internationale des sociétés d´auteurs et compositeurs (CISAC). It identifies a work as an intangible creation of the mind and not its expressions (e.g., a performance) or manifestations. The centralized ISWC data base is maintained in Paris by CISAC on the basis of agreements made with 17 national agencies. There are, in addition, 15 candidate agencies and 10 other organizations with which ISWC negotiations are underway.

ISAN. The ISAN (International Standard Audiovisual Number) identifies audiovisual works and their expressions when, for instance, it applies to "works or parts of audiovisual works, each of which is insubstantial in relation to the entire composite audiovisual work" [13]. Adopted as ISO standard 15706 in September 2002, the ISAN is managed by the International ISAN Agency, which coordinates the system and maintains a centralised data base of all ISAN records.

ISTC. Still pending ISO approval, the International Standard Textual Work Code (ISTC) is intended to identify textual works, and not their physical products or other work manifestations.

Identifying What, and for Which Purpose?

The quick review of identifiers in the previous section has shown how ISs can be partial in their scope but must be universal in their reach. An IS is partial in scope because, along the documentary continuum, only features of interest to the responsible community are made relevant. An ISRC, for instance, does not take into account the stance of authors and composers, but is customised according to the needs of the music industries. Nevertheless, ISs have the obligation to address as many communities as possible in order to be applied universally. They have to attract potential customers if they want to broaden their base of users.

The possibility for linking different ISs with metadata and related services has changed the patterns of institutional identification systems. The usefulness, flexibility and operability of an identifier is no longer related simply to its use to indicate documents. Identifiers can now link to services. The marketing of ISs has definitely shifted from a product-based approach to one that is service-oriented.

Evidence for that is to be found in the way ISs are generated today. Until several years ago, a community seeking universal adoption of its particular identifier would have sought legitimacy for the identifier through a national standardisation agency (usually ANSI/NISO) and, as a second step, would have started the long and complex procedure of approval by ISO. A network of agencies would have then been built up, usually on a geographical basis, to apply the standard successfully among interested communities.

With a view to occupying and eventually becoming entrenched in the Eldorado of content e-trade, producers have tried to speed up the process of standardization. The exercise of identification is now not only discussed in closed doors at standardisation symposia, but is openly taking place in the marketplace. Take the spectacular take-off of the DOI, for instance. Even without first having obtained the legitimacy of a standardisation agency (in fact, only DOI syntax is conformed to the ANSI/NISO norm), DOI has attracted the interest of publishers with its avowed objective of protecting copyright on communication networks. Neither the DOI nor any other identifiers truly perform this task today, but they are interoperable with standards active in rights management systems, where they are inserted as normalised tags. Copyright protection is definitely an attractive argument with producers; therefore, all ISs, with the exception of ISSN and ISRN, boldly assert their profitable application to rights management.

Another important feature of identifiers is their granularity, i.e., the size of intellectual artefacts included in published objects. In scientific periodicals, for instance, meaningful information can be finely grained when it relates to diagrams, icons, illustrations and other objects but can be more largely grained when the meaningful information concerns entire articles [14]. With regard to the intellectual property doctrine, granularity is the communication package that enjoys copyright protection.

Laboriously elaborated instruments, like the IFLA-UBCIM Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR), may prove to be inadequate when applied to identifiers [15]. According to FRBR, bibliographic entities are: work, expression, manifestation and item. Work is "a distinct intellectual or artistic creation", expression is "the intellectual or artistic realization of a work", manifestation is "the physical embodiment of an expression of a work", and item is "a single exemplar of a manifestation" [16].

The ISBN, ISMN and ISRN identify manifestations, as they refer to the physical expression of a work. The SICI operates at the expression level—the intellectual or artistic realization of a work. The ISRC, too, designates expressions of audio and music video recordings: for a music producer the relevant feature—the entity enjoying copyright protection—is the recording made by an orchestra, irrespective of its manifestation (CD, audiotape, etc.). The ISWC, instead, identifies the unique artistic creation, whatever its expression or manifestation is. The Beatles' hit Let it be, for instance, is the same work whether it is sung in English or in Italian, or in a new arrangement, and whether it is delivered on CD or on tape. This is also the reason why more than one identifier may apply to the same product: an item identified by an ISRC does not meet the needs of the author community, whose main concern is to control through an identifier the totality of expressions and manifestations of a work.

In a networked environment, however, things are more complicated. Take the ISSN, for instance, which does not identify a volume, an issue or an article included within an issue. Until 1991, the ISSN network assigned a unique ISSN to publications having the same content and title. It applied to the title as an expression. In 1991, the course was altered: with the motivation that an electronic copy of a serial may not correspond entirely to the paper format, the ISSN was meant to identify the manifestation of a serial title, and not its expression. Current practice is that the electronic versions of a serial get an ISSN that is different from the paper version. By linking an ISSN to the manifestation of an expression, the ISSN has taken a path beset with difficulties: should all issued electronic manifestations of a periodical (in PDF, XML, etc.) unambiguously be identified [17]?

Here is another example. How is the DOI classified according to the FRBR specifications? A DOI identifies neither a work, nor an expression, nor a manifestation. Or else, it can identify them all, as there is no distinction among the categories listed in FRBR. A "meta-identifier", the DOI interprets convergence literally on communication networks and applies to any digital object, making relevant only what is worth copyright protection. DOI tracks added value where it "sticks". For instance, the value of an astronomic journal is due to its images, without which text and related notes would be of little help. In a statistics article, diagrams and tables are the most important parts, and text is often a complement to them.

The DOI has opened up a new and unconventional concept of what constitutes a publication, one that is bordered according to the notion of copyright. This is why information producers have been supportive of DOIs. For producers, information is not in the elements that compound a published object (journal, article, title, etc.), but in a hierarchy of elements based on their relative value. This is also why librarians were initially cautious vis-à-vis DOIs. They were concerned that their use would reinforce the application of pay-per-view systems and lead to constantly proliferating sets of granular units that would require payment to access. Had that been so, as Guédon put it, "instead of defending a public space of access to information" librarians would be "...placed in the position of restricting access to a privatized space" [18] This initial concern, however, has been ameliorated by the vast array of services and opportunities DOIs may offer. In April 2003, a consortium formed by the British, Dutch and German national libraries joined the International DOI Foundation, and this membership has now been extended to the 43 members from 41 countries forming the CENL (Conference of European National Libraries) [19].

The identification problem is posed in a different way in the Open Archives Initiative (OAI), arguably the most successful initiative of the library and academic community in favour of free access to information [20]. The Open Archives Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) deals with the accessibility of electronic repositories and their interoperability. The identifier described by the OAI protocol does not refer—as is typical with identifiers—to the item or the resource that is hosted within the archive, but rather establishes a linkage between the metadata record and the identifier (URL, URN, DOI, etc.) contained in the record. The Dublin Core (DC) metadata format is mandatory, and DC provides the identifier element that can be used for this purpose. Data providers may choose, however, to adopt an IS that will be globally unique within the OAI namespace [21].

This feature is due to the truly "open" nature of an e-print archive, in which are included documents that have been, or are being, disseminated through various channels of communications (books, scientific periodicals, etc.). The OAI identifier is itself "open". It is interesting to note that when addressing the issue of global persistence, institutional digital repositories have used the CNRI Handle System to store handles of digital resources and to resolve them. This is the case, for example, of the DSpace, E-prints and MyCoRe repositories, all of which are compliant with the OAI protocol [22].

Actionability, Persistence and Interoperability

We have seen that what features matter most in the field of identification are copyright protection, user needs, entity type and universal reach. However, these are not enough. Three more features are required to make an identifier well fitted to a networked environment: actionability, persistence and interoperability.

Actionability is the ability to go with a single click from the identifier to a useful URL, be it to a metadata record, a service provided by the IS, or the identified resource itself. Metadata linking has become an especially strategic feature. In this respect, the ISBN and the ISSN are in a different positions in the IS market. Because it is not linked to any common metadata registry, the ISBN is non-actionable, whereas the ISSN could potentially use its ISSN Register to link metadata to relevant URLs locating resources.

Corollary to actionability is persistence. Identification for printed products in paper format is no problem, as the product to be identified is "fixed". Electronic resources, on the other hand, are frequently moved from one website to another; they may be posted on several websites; and their URLs are subject to frequent change. In short, electronic resources are not fixed and need to be located in a "nameplace" where they can be reliably identified, no matter what their current location may be. This is called persistent linking.

In the library field, persistence through a URI (Uniform Resource Identification) architecture—including naming identification (URN), semantics or meta-information (URC), and location (URL)—was pursued at the beginning with a proposal to use the URN system to support existing bibliographic identifiers (ISBN, ISSN, SICI) [23]. Developments, however, have not lived up to expectations. In collaboration with other German research libraries, the Deutsche Bibliothek in Frankfurt carried out the CARMEN project with a view to developing and implementing a service providing for permanent and reliable identification of online dissertations [24]. Though the project was successful, in April 2003 the Deutsche Bibliothek decided to join the International DOI Foundation (IDF).

The last relevant identifier feature is interoperability as applied to the issue of "appropriate copy"—i.e., the ability to differentiate between document copies and to access the one most desired by a user. Determining the "appropriate copy" is made possible by mediating between an application programme and a network, and enabling interaction among heterogeneous platforms. The best known way to do this is by employing OpenURL, which makes it possible to transport packages of metadata and/or identifiers about an information object on a context-sensitive basis using an open link technology. In other words, OpenURL ensures re-direction towards repositories of electronic resources and, within these, towards the most appropriate copy for a particular user. The OpenURL syntax is now the object of NISO standardisation [25]. The DOI has successfully tackled the issue of the "appropriate copy" through a DOI / OpenURL combination, where the DOI is used as a global resolver and OpenURL as a context-sensitive tool. This combination is applied in a series of commercial services, such as EBSCO's LinkSource, Article Linker (Serials Solution) and Ovid's LinkSolver [26].

Interestingly enough, all standards are moving towards greater interoperability among their platforms. It has been noted that one factor that may have delayed the rapid penetration of the ISRC in the identifier marketplace is that no common database was planned at the inception of the standard. There are now plans to make interoperable the whole set of identifiers present in the music sector (ISRC, ISWC and ISMN) [27]. Another example along this line is the link existing between the SICI and the ISSN, where articles identified by the SICI are linked to the title of a periodical.

To summarise, standardisation alone is not enough to guarantee the universal application of an identifier in the networked environment. A dense web of agencies, a shared culture based on the values embodied by a standard, effective services, persistence, actionability and interoperability are today determinants for a the success of an IS. The inherent features of each IS are described in the following Overview table:


Overview table: Identification Systems, their features and scope
Identification System Date of creation Level of granularity Category Community present in the Governing Board Standard Agencies Actionability/
International Standard Book Number
1972 Manifestation Intelligent Publishers/Libraries ISO 2108 Yes No
International Standard Serial Number
1974 Manifestation Dumb Libraries ISO 3297 Yes No
International Standard Recording Code
1986 Expression Intelligent Music producers ISO 3901 Yes No
Serial Item and Contribution Identifier Standard
1991 Expression Intelligent Not relevant (but operational in libraries) ANSI/NISO Z39.56-1996 No No
International Standard Music Number
1993 Manifestation Intelligent Music Publishers/Libraries ISO 10957 Yes No
International Standard Report Number
1994 Expression Intelligent Not relevant (but operational in libraries) ISO 10444 No No
Digital Object Identifier
1998 Object Dumb Publishers (but open to libraries) Syntax conforms to ANSI/NISO Z39.84-2000 Yes Yes
International Standard Audiovisual Number
2000 Work/Expression Dumb Audiovisual Producers ISO 15706 Yes No
International Standard Musical Work Code
2000 Work Dumb Authors/Composers ISO 15707 Yes No


Winners and Losers: the repositioning of existing identifiers in the networked environment

General trends in ISs—such as rights management or the normalisation of procedures related to networked transactions—do not alone explain today's institutional patterns and the relations—sometimes strained—among those involved. Nor do they help one to understand why the role of prime mover is now going from the library to the producer community. The explanation for this trend is to be found in the internal dynamics of the identification field and the attitude held by the players of both communities.

The main reason for such a shift is that the monopoly on identifier assignment, once held by code-related identification agencies, has now been broken, and this has resulted, if not in competition, at least in lively coopetition [28] among communities. Until 1998, identifying agencies would have found their raison d´être on product typology and on geographic coverage. Relations among them would have been based on formal agreements or tacit transactions and in a general "don't-tread-on-my-ground" attitude. Since the development of the DOI (an identifier, not yet standardized by ISO, born in the sphere of information producers and fully determined to benefit from its technological advantage), the picture is utterly different. Agencies have become rivals in offering services to their customers. Even within the same IS, competition among agencies is no longer taboo. DOI agencies, for instance, do not operate according to product categories, but follow a franchising principle. Their task-sharing schemes remain elusive, and for good reason. Franchising means users are free to address the agency that best suits their needs.

In a coopetitive environment, what is the fate of traditional identifiers? Will they survive in networked environments? Who are the winners and who are the losers within the electronic document universe?

After the buoyant 1990s, the market for electronic publications has increased dramatically—almost all STM publishers have now converted their periodicals to electronic format. The market for online digitized music and audiovisuals has not increased as rapidly, however, and this creates problems for all-in-one identifiers. Norman Paskin, Director of the International DOI Foundation, refers to this two-speed trend: "DOI implementations in non-text sectors have been far slower to develop" [29] Nevertheless, the DOI may be considered a winner in today's identification environment. Its success is proved by the number of DOIs assigned (as many as 10 million in five years). In addition, the DOI helped "rethinking the Net as management of information rather than as movement of data packets" [30]. From identifier of digital objects, the DOI has become the digital identifier of objects—it facilitates the management of digital entities, solves the persistence problem and has a dense level of interoperability.

In the wake of DOI's success, those working in the universe of identification have been obliged to reposition themselves and to revise their strategies and community practices. The identification world—which in the 1980s was always tempted to fall into a "drowsiness" brought on by routine—has been shaken up. ISs are using technologies as a means to expand their activities and are tooling up to cope with new demands. The ISRC is establishing sources of reference common to all national agencies; new business models are being elaborated; and renewed products and services are being provided to customers.

Most affected by the change are the two "old" identifiers: ISBN and ISSN. The ISBN has undergone an unprecedented sea change. With 13 digits and a common source of reference, the revised ISBN (which should be available for use in 2007) will have nothing, or at least little, to do with today's ISBN. At the end of the decade, the ISBN is expected to become interoperable and actionable.

Things are different regarding the other "historical" identifier: ISSN. Five years ago, its future seemed brilliant. Unlike the ISBN and the ISRC, the ISSN was endowed with a centralised data base containing almost one million bibliographic records. Moreover, serials were thriving on the Internet, although to some librarians this was seen leading to a possible serials control quagmire. After all, are not websites a special form of serial publications? To cope with this problem, a group of librarians paved the way to the identification of seriality in the electronic environment and a new definition of electronic publication emerged in 1999 [31].

Despite such a promising beginning, the ISSN International Centre has been unable to promote interoperability with the SICI by launching services for article control, search, retrieval and document delivery. Neither has the ISSN International Centre given thought to how the ISSN could contribute to solve the copyright issue for articles—the main reason publishers and subscription agencies had been attracted to the identification arena. No deal with DOI was made for linking the ISSN with the "objects" present in ISSN-marked serial titles, nor did the ISSN solve the problem of accessing the "appropriate copy".

With regard to "alternative publishing", the ISSN was not adapted to take advantage of the OAI protocol or to deal with the need to identify periodicals from which articles deposited in e-print archives are taken. Just when research libraries (the community that, after all, is the "owner" of ISSN) were mobilizing to resist the sway of STM publishers, the ISSN agencies have been absent from the technical debate.

To be fair, the ISSN community has pursued the objective of persistence within the URN architecture. In the wake of Lynch-Preston-Daniel suggestion, the possibility of making the ISSN a Uniform resource name was tested [32]. The technologically driven experiment, however, did not lead to any sustainable service, and a proposal made by Hakala to use the SICI as a URN by creating a link with the ISSN data base was disregarded [33]. This would have made the ISSN data base immediately actionable.

In 1999 the disappearance of the ISSN was forecast. "Good bye ISSN, Hello DOI?", bluntly asked Stefan Rankema, a subscription agent, at an international conference [34]. Is the situation really so desperate for ISSN? Some estimates will help us to assess the current state of affairs. CrossRef, the most prolific of the DOI RAs, has assigned DOIs to articles present in 9,000 journal titles. It is easy to guess that, in the short term, all 21,000 STM journals now indexed by the Ulrich's Periodical Directory eventually will use the DOI as their main identifier. This set of "core journals" represents the bulk of commercial and bibliographic transactions now occurring at the international level in the electronic trade.

"Core journals", however, are presumably no more than 10% of the world's current serials offerings, which is estimated to number 200,000-250,000 titles. The remaining 90% of serials are presumed to have only national relevance, have no scientific content or are of an ephemeral nature. In practice, the "core journals" that make up the bulk of international STM publishing (those journals that are present in most research libraries in developed countries) could be distributed without ISSNs and instead use the DOIs as their identifier. All the more so now that articles are sold by publishers not as parts of periodicals but as "objects" present in their data bases and portals. To the STM publishers, using the DOI is a valid, attractive and immediately actionable alternative to using the ISSN.

Moreover, for periodicals having national distribution or ephemeral content, is there a real need to maintain an accurate (and expensive) centralized data base in addition to that of national ISSN agencies? What is the rationale of having one million records stocked in a single access point if it is made available to only a few hundred users and with no additional services? If governmental agencies now sponsoring the ISSN International Centre should come to agree with this point, the reputation of the ISSN network, already questioned over inaction in the networked environment, would definitely suffer.


Over the last decade, ISs have increased not only in number but also in importance. ISs are now a significant element of any information policy in so far as they are instrumental to, and the facilitator of, bibliographic control, search and retrieval, resource discovery, information management and rights management.

The visibility of creative and scientific content on the Net depends on reliable identification. So also is the ability of a user to select material freely and without distortion from any commercial influence. The Overview table provided in this article may give the impression that the library community has the major role in determining what type of identifier will become the most useful and ubiquitous. After all, librarians have an important stake in five of the nine identification systems shown in the table. However, this impression is misleading.

The SICI is still looking for identity, and the ISRN and ISMN are relevant only for marginal sectors of the publishing business. Librarians do maintain a stake in the ISBN and ISSN identification systems, and on-going revision seems to have provided momentum for the ISBN, making it mature to run in a networked environment, but this is not the case for the ISSN, which—at the time of writing—is not yet actionable, persistent, or interoperable.

Inertia in the area of using the ISSN for serials identification—serials content and services having evolved faster on electronic information networks than any other type of content—has become so unsustainable that one may wonder whether matters have moved too far for its revision to help get the ISSN network out of its current predicament and to slow the current trend toward the transfer of traditional roles of the library community to the producer community. To a certain extent, the rational choice of three national libraries to benefit from link persistence, actionability and interoperability of a third party—the DOI identification system—may be interpreted as being one example where the producer community has co-opted what used to be seen as a library role—identification system development and control.

If the ISSN is to become fully operative in the networked environment by becoming actionable, persistent and interoperable, its overhaul must become a priority. And if the library community wishes to have the dominant role in the standardisation of identification systems and networked information processes, it needs to become more active in those realms.

Notes and References

[1] On these issues see: Ghislaine Chartron—Jean-Michel Salaün. "La reconstruction de l´économie politique des publications scientifiques." Bulletin des Bibliothèques de France, 45 (2000), n. 2, p. 32-42 and Ghislaine Chartron. Les chercheurs et la documentation numérique: nouveaux services et usages. Paris: Electre - Cercle de la Librairie, 2002.

[2] Quoted from Amy Brand - Frank Daly - Barbara Meyers. Metadata demystified. NISO press - Sheridan Press, (July 2003), p.4 <> (all links were last seen on December 24, 2003).

[3] On identifiers see Amy Brand - Frank Daly - Barbara Meyers, op. cit. A thorough and recent review is mEDRA. Multilingual European DOI Registration Agency. Media-related identification and metadata standards. An EDItEUR Survey, on behalf of mEDRA (29 November 2002) available in <>. See also Giuseppe Vitiello. "L´identificazione degli identificatori." Biblioteche oggi (in press); Juha Hakala. "Principles of identification: European perspectives." In Mauro Guerrini - Stefano Gambari - Lucia Sardo (a cura di). Proceedings International Conference Electronic Resources: Definition, Selection and Cataloguing, Rome (26 March 2001). <> and Élisabeth Giuliani "Les enjeux de la normalisation à l´heure du développement de l´information ´dématérialisée´." Revue Solaris, 1999 (6), in Normes et documents numériques: quels changements?, eds. Ghislaine Chartron et Jean-Max Noyer, <>.

[4] International Standard Book Number (ISBN) home page, <>.

[5] International Standard Serial Number (ISSN) home page, <>.

[6] ISRC page at the IFPI web site, <>.

[7] Serial Item and Contribution Identification Standard (SICI) home page, <>.

[8] The International Standard Music Number (ISMN) Agency home page, <>.

[9] See Digital Object Identifier (DOI) home page, <> and Norman Paskin. "DOI: A 2003 Progress Report," D-Lib Magazine, June 2003, 9(6) <doi:10.1045/june2003-paskin>. DOI numbering mechanism follows a syntax standardised as ANSI/NISO Z39.84-2000. See also the DOI Handbook, Appendix 1, <>.

[10] Handle System® home page, <>.

[11] CrossRef home page, <>. Apart from CrossRef, the following are DOI agencies: Content Direction Inc., applying the DOI system to books, periodicals, photographic pictures, audiovisual and sound documents, e-learning and registration included in medical databases; Enpia Systems Ltd., for the objects in Korean language; Learning Objects Network, Inc. supporting the Department of Defense's Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL); Copyright Agency Ltd, for licences provided to authors, journalists, artists, photographs, and publishers of books, periodicals and newspapers; TSO (The Stationery Office, the publisher of official publications in the UK and Ireland), which supplies digital identifiers to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development; and mEDRA, a consortium of European firms led by AIE (the Italian Publishers' Association). The full list of registration agencies may be found at <>.

[12] International Standard Musical Work Code (ISWC) home page, <>.

[13] International Standard Audiovisual Number (ISAN) home page, <>.

[14] Godfrey Rust. "Metadata: The Right Approach. An Integrated Model for Descriptive and Rights Metadata in E-commerce." D-Lib Magazine, July/August 1998, <doi:10.1045/july98-rust>.

[15] IFLA Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records. Final Report. Approved by the Standing Committee of the IFLA Section on Cataloguing. München: K. G. Saur 1998 (in <>).

[16] Ibidem.

[17] On this issue, see Marian Shemberg. "The Role of the ISSN in the Electronic Linking Environment." Serials Review, 29(2), (Summer 2003), p. 89-96, and the reply: Regina Romano Reynolds - Françoise Pellé. Comments on "The Role of the ISSN in the Electronic Linking Environment", p. 97-99 (same issue).

[18] Jean-Claude Guédon. In Oldenburg's Long Shadow: Librarians, Research Scientists, Publishers, and the Control of Scientific Publishing (May 2001) <>.

[19] DOI news release, 10 November 2003 - National Library participation in DOI Foundation extends to 41 countries through CENL, <>.

[20] Open Archives Intiative home page, <>.

[21] The Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting, <>.

[22] Open Society Institute. A Guide to Institutional Repository Software, prepared by Raym Crow, October 2003, <

[23] C. Lynch, C. Preston & R. Daniel. Using Existing Bibliographic Identifiers as Uniform Resource Names RFC2288. Available at <>.

[24] The CARMEN project home page, <>. The identifier applied within the CARMEN project was NBN (National Bibliographic Number), used for legal deposit purposes. On URN activities in Germany see the specific website: <>.

[25] See the OpenURL Framework for Context-Sensitive Services, <>, and also see, Herbert Van de Sompel and Patrick Hochstenbach. "Reference Linking in a Hybrid Library Environment, Part 1: Frameworks for Linking," D-Lib Magazine, April 1999, 5(4), <doi:10.1045/april99-van_de_sompel-pt1>; "Reference Linking in a Hybrid Library Environment, Part 2: SFX, a Generic Linking Solution," D-Lib Magazine, April 1999, 5(4), <doi:10.1045/april99-van_de_sompel-pt2>; "Reference Linking in a Hybrid Library Environment, Part 3: Generalizing the SFX solution in the "SFX@Ghent & SFX@LANL" experiment," D-Lib Magazine, October 1999, 5(10), <doi:10.1045/october99-van_de_sompel>.

[26] See, DOI home page, <>, and Oren Beit-Arie et alia. "Linking to the Appropriate Copy. Report of a DOI-Based Prototype," D-Lib Magazine, September 2001, 7(9), <doi:10.1045/september2001-caplan>.

[27] mEDRA. Multilingual European DOI Registration Agency. Media-related identification and metadata standards. op.cit.

[28] "Coopetition", a combination of the words cooperation and competition, is an economic term currently being used especially in what was once called the "new economy".

[29] Norman Paskin. "DOI. A 2003 Progress Report" cit.

[30] Ibidem.

[31] Jean Hirons et al. Revising AACR2 to Accommodate Seriality. Report to the Joint Steering Committee for Revision of AACR, April 1999, <>. The Group categorized three kinds of publications: "static" publications, including resources that are complete as first issued (e.g., books); resources for which additional information is supplied in a succession of discrete parts (serials); and finally, "dynamic" publications, i.e., those for which the updates are integrated into the resource and do not remain discrete.

[32] Françoise Pellé. "ISSN: An Ongoing Identifier in a Changing World." Serials Librarian, 41(3-4), (2002), p. 31-42; S. Rozenfeld. Using The ISSN (International Serial Standard Number) as URN (Uniform Resource Names) within an ISSN-URN Namespace). RFC3044. Available at <>.

[33] Juha Hakala. "Linking Articles and Bibliographic Records with Uniform Resource Names." Serials Librarian, 41(3-4), p. 193-199; Juha Hakala. "Using Serial Item and Contribution Identifiers as Uniform Resource Names," (draft-ietf-hakala-sici-01.txt). Available at <>.

[34] Stefan Rankema. "Goodbye ISSN, Hello DOI?" In AIB. Associazione Italiana Biblioteche. XLV Congresso nazionale AIB (Roma, 16-19 maggio 1999). <>.

Copyright © 2004 Giuseppe Vitiello

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DOI: 10.1045/january2004-vitiello