A specialist OpenID service to provide unique researcher IDs?
Following on from Science Online 09 and particularly discussions on Impact Factors and researcher incentives (also on Friendfeed and some video available at Mogulus via video on demand) as well as the article in PloS Computational Biology by Phil Bourne and Lynn Fink the issue of unique researcher identifiers has really emerged as absolutely central to making traditional publication work better, effectively building a real data web that works, and making it possible to aggregate the full list of how people contribute to the community automatically.
Good citation practice lies at the core of good science. The value of research data is not so much in the data itself but its context, its connection with other data and ideas. How then is it that we have no way of citing a person? We need a single, unique way, of identifying researchers. This will help traditional publishers and the existing ecosystem of services by making it possible to uniquely identify authors and referees. It will make it easier for researchers to be clear about who they are and what they have done. And finally it is a critical step in making it possible to automatically track all the contributions that people make. We’ve all seen CVs where people say they have refereed for Nature or the NIH or served on this or that panel. We can talk about micro credits but until there are validated ways of pulling that information and linking it to an identity that follows the person, not who they work for, we won’t make much progress.
On the other hand most of us do not want to be locked into one system, particularly if it is controlled by one commercial organization. Thomson ISI’s ResearcherID is positioned as a solution to this problem, but I for one am not happy with being tied into using one particular service, regardless of who runs it.
In the PLoS Comp Biol article Bourne and Fink argue that one solution to this is OpenID. OpenID isn’t a service, it is a standard. This means that an identity can be hosted by a range of services and people can choose between them based on the service provided, personal philosophy, or any other reason. The central idea is that you have a single identity which you can use to sign on to a wide range of sites. In principle you sign into your OpenID and then you never see another login screen. In practice you often end up typing in your ID but at least it reduces the pain in setting up new accounts. It also provides in most cases a “home page”. If you go to //cameron.neylon.myopenid.com you will see a (pretty limited) page with some basic information.
OpenID is becoming more popular with a wide range of webservices providing it as a login option including Dopplr, Blogger, and research sites including MyExperiment. Enabling OpenID is also on the list for a wide range of other services, although not always high up the priority list. As a starting point it could be very easy for researchers with an OpenID simply to add it to their address when publishing papers, thus providing a unique, and easily trackable identifier that is carried through the journal, abstracting services, and the whole ecosystem services built around them.
There are two major problems with OpenID. The first is that it is poorly supported by big players such as Google and Yahoo. Google and Yahoo will let you use your account with them as an OpenID but they don’t accept other OpenID providers. More importantly, people just don’t seem to get OpenID. It seems unnatural for some reason for a person’s identity marker to be a URL rather than a number, a name, or an email address. Compounded with the limited options provided by OpenID service providers this makes the practical use of such identifiers for researchers very much a minority activity.
So what about building an OpenID service specifically for researchers? Imagine a setup screen that asks sensible questions about where you work and what field you are in. Imagine that on the second screen, having done a search through literature databases it presents you with a list of publications to check through, remove any mistakes, allow you to add any that have been missed. And then imagine that the default homepage format is similar to an academic CV.
Problem 1: People already have multiple IDs and sometimes multiple OpenIDs. So we make at least part of the back end file format, and much of what is exposed on the homepage FOAF, making it possible to at least assert that you are the same person as, say email@example.com.
Problem 2: Aren’t we just locking people into a specific service again? Well no, if people don’t want to use it they can use any OpenID provider, even set one up themselves. It is an open standard.
Problem 3: What is there to make people sign up? This is the tough one really. It falls into two parts. Firstly, for those of us who already have OpenIDs or other accounts on other systems, isn’t this just (yet) another “me too” service. So, in accordance with the five rules I have proposed for successful researcher web services, there has to be a compelling case for using it.
For me the answer to this comes in part from the question. One of the things that comes up again and again as a complaint from researchers is the need to re-format their CV (see Schleyer et al, 2008 for a study of this). Remember that the aim here is to automatically aggregate most of the information you would put in a CV. Papers should be (relatively) easy, grants might be possible. Because we are doing this for researchers we know what the main categories are and what they look like. That is we have semantically structured data.
Ok so great I can re-format my CV easier and I don’t need to worry about whether it is up to date with all my papers but what about all these other sites where I need to put the same information? For this we need to provide functionality that lets all of this be carried easily to other services. Simple embed functionality like that you see on YouTube, and most other good file hosting services, which generates a little fragment of code that can easily be put in place on other services (obviously this requires other services to allow that – which could be a problem in some cases). But imagine the relief if all the poor people who try to manage university department websites could just throw in some embed codes to automatically keep their staff pages up to date? Anyone seeing a business model here yet?
But for this to work the real problem to be solved is the vast majority of researchers for whom this concept is totally alien. How do we get them to be bothered to sign up for this thing which apparently solves a problem they don’t have? The best approach would be if journals and grant awarding bodies used OpenIDs as identifiers. This would be a dream result but doesn’t seem likely. It would require significant work on changing many existing systems and frankly what is in it for them? Well one answer is that it would provide a mechanism for journals and grant bodies to publicly acknowledge the people who referee for them. An authenticated RSS feed from each journal or funder could be parsed and displayed on each researcher’s home page. The feed would expose a record of how many grants or papers that each person has reviewed (probably with some delay to prevent people linking that to the publication of specific papers). Of course such a feed could be used for lot of other interesting things as well, but none of them will work without a unique person identifier.
I don’t think this is compelling enough in itself, for the moment, but a simpler answer is what was proposed above – just encouraging people to include an OpenID as part of their address. Researchers will bend over backwards to make people happy if they believe those people have an impact on their chances of being published or getting a grant. A little thing could provide a lot of impetus and that might bring into play the kind of effects that could result from acknowledgement and ultimately make the case that shifting to OpenID as the login system is worth the effort. This would particularly the case for funders who really want to be able to aggregate information about the people they fund effectively.
There are many details to think about here. Can I use my own domain name (yes, re-directs should be possible). Will people who use another service be at a disadvantage (probably, otherwise any business model won’t really work). Is there a business model that holds water (I think there is but the devil is in the details). Should it be non-profit or for profit or run by a respected body (I would argue that for-profit is possible and should be pursued to make sure the service keeps improving – but then we’re back with a commercial provider).
There are many good questions that need to be thought through but I think the principle of this could work, and if such an approach is to be successful it needs to get off the ground soon and fast.
Note: I am aware that a number of people are working behind the scenes on components of this and on similar ideas. Some of what is written above is derived from private conversations with these people and as soon as I know that their work has gone public I will add references and citations as appropriate at the bottom of this post.