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Adopting ORCIDs

7 January 2016 One Comment

Eight publishers will move to require ORCIDs for corresponding authors as part of the submission requirements for submitting articles.

It seems like a very long time ago that I got involved in the efforts to develop an ID system for contributors to research outputs. A post from 2009 seems to be the earliest I wrote about it alongside a summary from a few weeks later (ironically, given the discussion a summary for which most of the links are broken). I’ve been doing a lot of looking at old posts recently and those two illustrate an interesting turning point. In the first of the two there’s a somewhat idealised and naive technical proposal, and an evident distrust of the idea that publishers (or a publisher organisation like Crossref) should take the lead. In the second there is a rather more pragmatic perspective and (discounting the…ah…lets just say somewhat superseded technical ideas) a summary that ends with two sharp points.

Publishers and funders will have to lead. The end view of what is being discussed here is very like a personal home page for researchers. But instead of being a home page on a server it is a dynamic document pulled together from stuff all over the web. But researchers are not going to be interested for the most part in having another home page that they have to look after. Publishers in particular understand the value (and will get most value out of in the short term) unique identifiers so with the most to gain and the most direct interest they are best placed to lead, probably through organisations like CrossRef that aggregate things of interest across the industry. Funders will come along as they see the benefits of monitoring research outputs, and forward looking ones will probably come along straight away, others will lag behind. The main point is that pre-populating and then letting researchers come along and prune and correct is going to be more productive than waiting for ten millions researchers to sign up to a new service.

The really big question is whether there is value in doing this specially for researchers. This is not a problem unique to research and one in which a variety of messy and disparate solutions are starting to arise. Maybe the best option is to sit back and wait to see what happens. I often say that in most cases generic services are a better bet than specially built ones for researchers because the community size isn’t there and there simply isn’t a sufficient need for added functionality. My feeling is that for identity that there is a special need, and that if we capture the whole research community that it will be big enough to support a viable service. There is a specific need for following and aggregating the work of people that I don’t think is general, and is different to the authentication issues involved in finance. So I think in this case it is worth building specialist services.

Contributor IDs: An attempt to aggregate and integrate

Fast forward seven years and these still seem the core to the adoption problem. It was publishers (and a smaller number of forward thinking funders) that drove ORCID forward. It is still a problem getting across that an ORCID is not “just another profile” and the way in which institutions and services have implemented that hasn’t helped. The particular use case that is researchers I think has been answered in the way that ORCID can be made to work, the public API, the data dumps and the principle of Open Data, all offer opportunities across the research ecosystem that are only beginning to be worked out.

Achieving critical mass remains the question. The real benefits from being able to link outputs and contributors only comes when the graph of links between them is open. And as with all changes there is the question of who should push that, when; and how hard. Institutions could have, but have largely dropped the ball. Looking at the countries listed in affiliations in the most recent data dump suggests that where there is a strong national agenda to use ORCID that adoption is high (you need to zoom in to see but I find the adoption in some South American countries striking).

National adoption is slow, meaning publishers and funders need to take a lead. One thing I got wrong in that summary was the assumption that publishers would get the most short term benefits from adoption of contributor IDs. That may be true in the medium term as we get to critical mass, but in the short term those publishers taking a stance on this are actually taking a risk. It costs money to implement, it will involve some addition friction for authors, and it will take time to deliver benefits, both for publishers and authors. One of the best parts of this announcement is the commitment to using the ORCID API to populate the information. Done right this will reduce the burden for authors in submitting, improve the quality of bibliographic metadata in general, and make it easier for researchers to report outputs to institutions and funders.

I believe in ORCID as a way to create an open and community owned basis for building better and cheaper systems and services for research communication. There are risks and potential problems along the way. But the alternative is just to see us continue down the road where the data itself is owned and controlled by corporate interests. That data ought to be in the hands of the community, and through that we can work to build lower cost systems that support both relevant and cost effective services for a global system of research communications. The eight publishers engaging in taking that forward deserve credit for working together in a way that supports the whole community.

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