Organisation Identifiers – the requirements for a trusted registry solution

The argument for unique, persistent and open persistent identifiers is one that is strong and difficult to argue against, particularly in the world of research when trying to link all the disparate research outputs to the research lifecycle. An example of such an identifier, and one that has proved to be successful, is the ORCID identifier for individuals. This is a clear solution, where the problem is more about promoting it to researchers, getting them to sign up and use it, and integrating it within existing and new systems. However, what happens when there is a choice of identifier solutions? How do you make the right choice in a world of alternatives and competition between registries?

This post is specifically about one of these persistent identifiers (PIDs) – the unique and persistent identification of organisations (OrgIDs). Jisc has been actively involved in discussions around the problems of OrgIDs for a number of years. Much of this work has been written about in other posts so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail of earlier work, or issues around defining organisations, hierarchies within organisations, or the variety used within the UK, as I want to focus on recent developments and the way forward. This post expands on a recent presentation I gave at CASRAI ReConnect18. Before I focus on the last year, it is worth summarising some of the work and initiatives Jisc has been involved in and, if you would like to delve deeper into some of this work, I’ve provided links for further information.

The Jisc-CASRAI organisational identifier working group produced a landscape study, a review and use cases for OrgIds. These outputs and recommendations from the working group are described in this blog post. A solution, referred to in the report as ISNI+, was recommended and can be summarised in the review’s conclusion:

The conclusion of the review was that while one single candidate would not fulfil all the criteria, it would be useful to separate the infrastructure element (the provision and maintenance of the OrgID itself) and the service element (the services offered both to registrants and to end users of the services). The most desirable vision for the future would be for ISNI to emerge as a strong, sustainable and internationally well supported baseline or, in their own words, “bridging” ID with a few commercial players, and perhaps some non-commercial ones such as the British Library and HEFCE, acting as registration agencies and holding crosswalks or equivalence tables to their own IDs.

Originally the working group was looking at a UK solution for OrgIDs but very early on it became clear that any solution would need to be international. This was reflected in the fact that this work fed into the PTCRIS programme, from the FCT|FCCN in Portugal, and establishment of an organisation registration system and a mandatory national organisations database that synchronises information between the main national and international registration systems. The use cases and recommendations were included in the OCLC report “Addressing the Challenges with Organizational Identifiers and ISNI”, produced by a working group with representatives from the US, Australia and the UK. In the UK, a joint Jisc/RCUK/ARMA group included the recommendations in their Overview of Systems Interoperability Project (OSIP) report.

The group’s recommendations were reviewed a year later and were found, after discussions with existing working group members and other stakeholders, to still be pertinent. It stressed that the most desirable vision for the future for UK research would be the emergence of a strong, sustainable and internationally well supported baseline OrgID, with a few commercial organisations and some non-commercial ones such as the British Library, acting as registration agencies and holding crosswalks or equivalence tables to their own and other orgIDs. ISNI was still felt to be the only obvious candidate for this acting as a “bridging” identifier. Questions were raised within the international community about the sustainability of ISNI and its ability to provide this role at scale. However, it was stressed that any alternative future candidate would need to demonstrate such sustainability and scalability as well as interoperability with ISNI to the extent that current ISNI users could move easily between them.

The strength of these recommendations was not just their reuse in other initiatives but that they are still valid today. We feel that any registry/identifier should satisfy the recommendations of our original review and any solution has to address the concerns around sustainability, efficiency, support, governance and openness.

The review also highlighted the following:

  • The world has moved on and it seems possible that another solution will emerge and Jisc is keeping a watching brief;
  • The issues are important for any new proposed service so they can be presented as universally, generically applicable;
  • A solution will only be adopted when key stakeholders have been persuaded to adopt it and integrate it with their existing systems;
  • Establishing the benefits are key to selling any solution, but to achieve a consensus requires community engagement.

These were summarised in my presentation at the first PIDapalooza in November 2016.

At this point (in 2016) the three organisations of ORCID, DataCite and Crossref ran collaborative workshops to discuss the issues around existing OrgID solutions. This resulted in the setting up of a working group to look at the structure, principles, and technology specifications for an open, independent, non-profit organisation identifier registry. Set up in January 2017 this group ran for one year and included members from a broad range of organisations. You can read a summary of this work on the Crossref blog. After setting up the framing principles and governance recommendations, the working group issued a Request for Information (RFI) on 9 October 2017 to solicit comment and expressions of interest from the broader research community in developing the registry. These were presented at a stakeholder meeting prior to the second PIDapalooza in January 2018. My report from this PIDapalooza is available on Jisc’s Research Data blog. If you are interested in the responses to the RFI they are available in this shared document.

The working group came to an end at the stakeholder meeting so there has been no oversight or input by the group as a whole into the actual review of these responses or the selection process. Since the meeting in January there has been no announcement to the public that this new registry will be set up, who will run it, how it will be sourced or what governance structures will be in place. With one of the organisations that set up the working group applying to host the registry, it’s important that the selection process is open and transparent, or undertaken by a neutral group, or it risks eroding the trust of the community from the start.

In August 2017 there was an announcement from ISNI that they were making “changes to its infrastructure focused on providing open identifiers for organizations working in the field of scholarly communications.” This involved segmenting the organisation records from the ISNI database, making the identifiers and associated core metadata available under a CC0 licence and an API for the retrieval and resolution of ISNI IDs. These were issues that had been raised by ORCID/DataCite/Crossref prior to the setting up of their working group. The ISNI announcement stated that a new Advisory Board would be set up with representatives of the scholarly communications community to guide the efforts of the “ISNI Organizations Registry”. As far as I’m aware, this has not yet been set up.

We have two potential registries to solve the organisation identifier problem but, at the time of writing, there is no clear structure or details for either initiative so it is difficult to objectively assess their merits. However, for any registry, the recommendations from the Jisc-CASRAI group still apply. In addition to this, it’s worth stressing that the following are addressed for any registry to be a success and adopted by the community. These are:

  • The ownership and governance of an organisational identifier registry in the academic domain should reflect the range of organisations that would be identified in the registry. It is not appropriate for a body governed by only one set of organisations to have excessive influence.
  • There must be trust in the process for defining governance and host arrangements with an open and transparent process.

Without addressing these issues it’s unlikely that the community will trust or adopt a registry solution for organisation identifiers. Jisc will continue to engage with the relevant groups and organisations to ensure the needs of the UK (and international) community are met and that these issues are raised.

And finally, OrgIDs are just one identifier in a much wider PID landscape. I finished my ReConnect 2018 presentation with a reference to the initiative we’re currently working on to map the PID landscape. You can find out more about this initiative and how to get involved at the ORCID blog.