Thursday, 4 February 2010

Persistent identifiers workshop comes round again

It seems to be the one event that people think is important enough to go to, even though they fear in their hearts that, yet again, not a lot of progress will be made. Most of those at yesterday’s JISC-funded Persistent Identifiers workshop yesterday had been to several such meetings before. For my part, I learned quite a lot, but the slightly flat outcome was not all that unexpected. It’s not quite Groundhog Day, as things do move forward slightly from one meeting to the next.

Part of the trouble is in the name. There is this tendency to think that persistent identifiers can be made persistent by some kind of technical solution. To my mind this is a childish belief in the power of magic, and a total abrogation of responsibility; the real issues with “persistent” identifiers are policy and social issues. Basically, far too many people just don’t get some simple truths. If you have a resource which has been given some kind of identifier that resolves to its address (so people can use it), and you change that address without telling those who manage the identifier/resolution, then the identifier will be broken. End of, as they say!

This applies whether you have an externally managed identifier (DOI, Handle, PURL) or an internally managed identifier (eg a well-designed HTTP URI… Paul Walk threatened to throw a biscuit at the first person to mention “Cool URLs”, but had to throw it at himself!).

Now clearly some identifiers have traction in some areas. Thanks to the efforts of CrossRef and its member publishers, the DOI is extremely useful in the scholarly journal literature world. You really wouldn’t want to invent a new identifier for journal articles now, and if you have a journal that doesn’t use DOIs (ahem!), you would be well-advised to sign up. It looks very affordable for a small publisher: $275 per year plus $1 per article.

Even for such a well-established identifier, with well-defined policies and a strong set of social obligations, things do go wrong. I give you Exhibit A, for example, in which Bryan Lawrence discovers that dereferencing a DOI for a 2001 article on his publications list leads to "Content not found" (apologies for the “acerbic” nature of my comment there). It looks like this was due to a failure of two publishers to handle a journal transfer properly; the new publisher made up a new DOI for the article, and abandoned the old one. Aaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhhh! Moving a resource and giving it a new DOI is a failure of policy and social underpinning (let alone competence) that no persistent identifier scheme can survive! CrossRef does its best to prevent such fiascos occurring, but see social issues above. People fail to understand how important this is, or simple things like: the DOI prefix is not part of your brand!

Whether a DOI is the right identifier to use for research data seems to me a much more open question. The issue here is whether the very different nature of (at least some kinds of) research data would make the DOI less useful. The DataCite group is committed to improving the citability of research data (which I applaud), but also seems to be committed to use of the DOI, which is a little more worrying. While the DOI is clearly useful for a set of relatively small, unchanging digital objects published in relatively small numbers each year (eg articles published in the scholarly literature), is it so useful for a resource type which varies by many orders of magnitude in terms of numbers of objects, rate of production, size of object, granularity of identified subset, and rate of change? In particular, the issue of how a DOI should relate to an object that is constantly changing (as so many research datasets do) appears relatively un-examined.

There was some discussion, interesting to me at least, on the relationships of DOIs to the Linked Data world. If you remember, in that world things are identified by URIs, preferably HTTP URIs. We were told (via the twitter backchannel, about which I might say more later) that DOIs are not URIs, and that the version is not a DOI (nor presumably is the INFO URI version). This may be fact, but seems to me rather a problem, as it means that "real DOIs" don't work as 1st class citizens of a Linked data World. If the International DOI Foundation were to declare that the HTTP version was equivalent to a DOI, and could be used wherever a DOI could be used, then the usefulness of the DOI as an identifier in a Linked Data world might be greatly increased.

A question that’s been bothering me for a while is when an “arms-length” scheme, like PURL, Handle, DOI etc is preferable to a well-managed local HTTP identifier. We know that such well-managed HTTP identifiers can be extremely persistent; as far as I know all of the eLib programme URIs established by UKOLN in 1995 still work, even though UKOLN web infrastructure has completely changed (and I suspect that those identifiers have outlasted the oldest extant DOI, which must have happened after 1998). Such a local identifier remains under your control, free of external costs, and can participate fully in the Linked Data world; these are quite significant advantages. It seems to me that the main advantage of the set of “arms-length” identifiers is that they are independent of the domain, so they can be managed even if the original domain is lost; at that point, a HTTP URI redirect table could not be set up. So I’m afraid I joked on twitter that perhaps “use of a DOI was a public statement of lack of confidence in the future of your organisation”. Sadly I missed waving the irony flag on this, so it caused a certain amount of twitter outrage that was unintentional!

In fact the twitter backchannel was extremely interesting. Around a third or so of the twits were not actually at the meeting, which of course was not apparent to all. And it is in the nature of a backchannel to be responding to a heard discourse, not apparent to the absent twits; in other words, the tweets represent a flawed and extremely partial view of the meeting. Some of those who were not present (who included people in the DOI world, the IETF and big publishers) seemed to get quite the wrong end of the stick about what was being said. On the other hand, some external contributions were extremely useful and added value for the meat-space participants!

I will end with one more twitter contribution. We had been talking a bit about the publishing world, and someone asked how persistent are academic publishers. The tweet came back from somewhere “well, their salespeople are always ringing us up ;-) !

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

More on contact pages and linked data

I wrote about RDF-encoding contact information a little earlier and had some very helpful comments. On reflection, and after exploring the “View Source” options for a couple of institutional contact pages, I’ve had some further thoughts.

- Contacts pages are rarely authored, they are nearly always created on the fly from an underlying database. This makes them natural for expressing in RDF (or microformats). It’s just a question of tweaking the way the HTML wrapper is assembled. Bath University’s Person Finder pages do encode their data in microformats.

- I wondered why more universities don’t encode their data in microformats or (even better) in RDF for Linked Data. One possible answer is that the contact pages were probably one of the earliest examples of constructing web pages from databases. It works, it ain’t broke, so they haven’t needed to fix it! If so, a reasonable case would need to be made for any change, but once made it would be comparatively cheap to carry out.

- A second problem is that it is not at all clear to me what the best encoding and vocabulary for institutional (or organisational unit) contact pages might be. So maybe it’s even less surprising that things have not changed. To say I'm confused is putting it mildly! So what follows list some of the options after further (but perhaps not complete) investigation...

One approach is the hCard microformat, based on the widely used vCard specification, RFC2426 (this is what Bath uses). That’s fine as far as it goes, but microformats don’t seem to fit directly in the Linked Data world. I’m no expect (clearly!), but in particular, microformats don’t use URIs for the names of things, and don’t use RDF. They appear useful for extracting information from a web page, but not much beyond that (I guess I stand to be corrected here!).

Looking at RDF-based encodings, there are options based on vCard, there are FOAF and SIOC (both really coming from a social networking view point), and there’s the Portable Contacts specification.

Given that vCard is a standard for contact information, it would seem sensible to look for a vCard encoding in RDF. It turns out that there are two RDF encodings of vCard, one supposedly deprecated, and the other apparently unchanged since 2006. I now discover an activity to formalise a W3C approach in this area, with a draft submission to W3C edited by Renato Ianella and dating only from last December (2009), but I would need a W3C username and password to see the latest version, so I can't tell how it's going,

Someone asked me a while ago who sets the standards for Linked Data vocabularies. My response at the time was that the users did, by choosing which specification to adopt. At the time, FOAF seemed to have most mentions in this general area, and I rather assumed (see the previous post) that it would have the appropriate elements. However, the “Friend of a Friend” angle really does seem to dominate; this vocabulary does seem to be more about relationships, and to be lacking in some of the elements needed for a contacts page. I suspect this might have stemmed from a desire to stop people compromising their privacy in a spam-laden world. However, those of us in public service posts often need to expose our contact details. However, FOAF does have email as foaf:mbox, which apparently includes phone and fax as well, as you can see from the sample FOAF extract in my earlier post.

In a tweet Dan Brickley suggested: “We'll probably round out FOAF’s address book coverage to align with Portable Contacts spec”, so I had a look at the latter. The main web site didn’t answer, but Google’s cache provided me with a draft spec, which does appear to have the elements I need.

What elements do I need for a contact page? Roughly I would want some or all of:

  • Name
  • Job title/role in DCC (my virtual organisation)
  • (Optional job title/role in home organisation)
  • Organisational unit/Organisation
  • Address/location
  • Phone/fax numbers
  • Email address

So what could I do if this information were expressed in RDF in the contact pages for a partner institution (say UKOLN at Bath)? Well, presumably the DCC contact pages would be based on a database showing the staff who work on the DCC, with the contact information directly extracted from the remote pages (either linked in real time or perhaps cached in some way). And if Bath changed their telephone numbers again, our contact details would remain up to date. But more. Given that there are some staff members who have roles in several projects, it would be easy to see who the linkages were between the DCC and the other project (eg RSP in the past, or I2S2 now). Part of the point of Linked Data (rather than microformats) is that one can reason with it; follow the edges of the great global graph…

And perhaps I would be able to find a simple app that extracts a vCard from the contact page to import into my Mac’s Address Book, which is where I started this search from! You wouldn’t think it would be hard, would you? I mean, this isn’t rocket science, surely?