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NISO response to the National Science Board on Data Policies

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Earlier this month, the National Science Board (NSB) announced it was seeking comments from the public on the report from the Committee on Strategy and Budget Task Force on Data Policies, Digital Research Data Sharing and Management.  That report was distributed last December.

NISO has prepared a response on behalf of the standards development community, which was submitted today.  Here are some excerpts of that response:

The National Science Board’s Task Force on Data Policies comes at a watershed moment in the development of an infrastructure for data-intensive science based on sharing and interoperability. The NISO community applauds this effort and the focused attention on the key issues related to a robust and interoperable data environment.

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NISO has particular interest in Key Challenge #4: The reproducibility of scientific findings requires that digital research data be searchable and accessible through documented protocols or method. Beyond its historical involvement in these issues, NISO is actively engaged in forward-looking projects related to data sharing and data citation. NISO, in partnership with the National Federation of Advanced Information Services (NFAIS), is nearing completion of a best practice for how publishers should manage supplemental materials that are associated with the journal articles they publish. With a funding award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and in partnership with the Open Archives Initiative, NISO began work on ResourceSync, a web protocol to ensure large-scale data repositories can be replicated and maintained in real-time. We’ve also had conversations with the DataCite group for formal standardization of their IsCitedBy specification. [Todd Carpenter serves] as a member of the ICSTI/CODATA task force working on best practices for data citation and NISO is looking forward to promoting and formalizing any recommendations and best practices that derive from that work.

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We strongly urge that any further development of data-related best practices and standards take place in neutral forums that engage all relevant stakeholder communities, such as the one that NISO provides for consensus development. As noted in Appendix F of the report, Summary Notes on Expert Panel Discussion on Data Policies, standards for descriptive and structural metadata and persistent identifiers for all people and entities in the data exchange process are critical components of an interoperable data environment. We cannot agree more with this statement from the report of the meeting: “Funding agencies should work with stakeholders and research communities to support the establishment of standards that enable sharing and interoperability internationally.”

There is great potential for NSF to expand its leadership role in fostering well-managed use of data. This would include not only support of the repository community, but also in the promulgation of community standards. In partnership with NISO and using the consensus development process, NSF could support the creation of new standards and best practices. More importantly, NSF could, through its funding role, provide advocacy for—even require—how researchers should use these broad community standards and best practices in the dissemination of their research. We note that there are more than a dozen references to standards in Digital Research Data Sharing and Management report, so we are sure that this point is not falling on unreceptive ears.

The engagement of all relevant stakeholders in the establishment of data sharing and management practices as described in Recommendation #1 is critical in today’s environment—at both the national and international levels. While the promotion of individual communities of practice is a laudable one, it does present problems and issues when it comes to systems interoperability. A robust system of data exchange by default must be one grounded on a core set of interoperable data. More often than not, computational systems will need to act with a minimum of human intervention to be truly successful. This approach will not require a single schema or metadata system for all data, which is of course impossible and unworkable. However, a focus on and inclusion of core data elements and common base-level data standards is critical. For example, geo-location, bibliographic information, identifiers and discoverability data are all things that could be easily standardized and concentrated on to foster interoperability. Domain-specific information can be layered over this base of common and consistent data in a way that maintains domain specificity without sacrificing interoperability.

One of the key problems that the NSB and the NSF should work to avoid is the proliferation of standards for the exchange of information. This is often the butt of standards jokes, but in reality it does create significant problems. It is commonplace for communities of interest to review the landscape of existing standards and determine that existing standards do not meet their exact needs. That community then proceeds to duplicate seventy to eighty percent of existing work to create a specification that is custom-tailored to their specific needs, but which is not necessarily compatible with existing standards. In this way, standards proliferate and complicate interoperability. The NSB is uniquely positioned to help avoid this unnecessary and complicating tendency. Through its funding role, the NSB should promote the application, use and, if necessary, extension of existing standards. It should aggressively work to avoid the creation of new standards, when relevant standards already exist.

The sharing of data on a massive scale is a relatively new activity and we should be cautious in declaring fixed standards at this state. It is conceivable that standards may not exist to address some of the issues in data sharing or that it may be too early in the lifecycle for standards to be promulgated in the community. In that case, lower-level consensus forms, such as consensus-developed best practices or white papers could advance the state of the art without inhibiting the advancement of new services, activities or trends. The NSB should promote these forms of activity as well, when standards development is not yet an appropriate path.

We hope that this response is well received by the NSB in the formulation of its data policies. There is terrific potential in creating an interoperable data environment, but that system will need to be based on standards and rely on best practices within the community to be fully functional. The scientific community, in partnership with the library, publisher and systems provider communities can all collectively help to create this important infrastructure. Its potential can only be helped by consensus agreement on base-level technologies. If development continues in a domain-centered path, the goal of interoperability and delivering on its potential will only be delayed and quite possibly harmed.

The full text PDF of the entire response is available here.  Comments from the public related to this document are welcome.

When is a new thing a new thing?

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

I recently gave a presentation at the National Central Library in Taiwan at a symposium on digital publishing and international standards that they hosted. It was a tremendous meeting and I am grateful to my hosts, Director General Karl Min Ku and his staff for a terrific visit.  One of the topics that I discussed was the issue of the identification of ebooks. This is increasingly becoming an important issue in our community and I am serving on a BISG Working Group to explore thes issues. Below are some notes from one slide that I gave during that presentation, which covers one of the core questions: At what point do changes in a digital file qualify it as a new product?  The full slide deck is here. I’ll be expanding on these ideas in other forums in the near future, but here are some initial thoughts on this question.

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In a print world, what made one item different from another was generally it’s physical form. Was the binding hardcover or soft-cover? Was the type regular or large-size for the visually impaired, or even was it printed using Braille instead of ink? Was the item a book or a reading of the book, i.e. an audio book, was about as far afield as the form question had gone prior to the rise of the internet in the mid 1990s. In a digital environment, what constitutes a new item is considerably more complex. This poses tremendous issues regarding the supply chain, identification, and collections management in libraries.

This is a list of some of the defining characteristics for a digital text that are distinct from those in a print environment.  Each poses a unique challenge to the management and identification of digital items.

  • Encoding structure possibilities (file formats)
  • Platform dependencies (different devices)
  • Reflowable (resize)
  • Mutable (easily changed/updated)
  • Chunked (the entire item or only elements)
  • Networkable (location isn’t applicable)
  • Actionable/interactive
  • Linkable (to other content)
  • Transformable (text to speech)
  • Multimedia capable
  • Extensible (not constrained by page)
  • Operate under license terms (not copyright)
  • Digital Rights Management (DRM)

Just some of these examples pose tremendous issues for the supply chain of ebooks when it comes to fitting our current business practices, such as ISBN into this environment.

One question is whether the form of the ebook which needs a new identifier is the file format. If the publisher is distributing a single file format, say an epub file, but then in order for that item go get displayed onto a Kindle, it needs to be transformed into a different file format, that of the Kindle, at what point does the transformation of that file become a new thing? Similarly, if you wrap that same epub file with a specific form of digital rights management, does that create a new thing? From an end-user perspective, the existence and type of DRM could render a file as useless to the users as it would be if you supplied a Braille version to someone who can’t read Braille.

To take another, even thornier question, let’s consider location. What does location mean in a network environment. While I was in Taiwan, if I wanted to buy a book using my Kindle from there, where “am I” and where is the transaction taking place? Now in the supply chain, this makes a tremendous amount of difference. A book in Taiwan likely has a different ISBN number, assigned to a different publishers, because the original publisher might not have worldwide distribution rights. The price might be different, even the content of the book might be slightly different-based on cultural or legal sensitivities. But while I may have been physically located in Taiwan, my Amazon account is based in Maryland, where I live and where my Kindle is registered. Will Amazon recognize me as the account holder in the US or the fact of my present physical location in Taiwan, despite the fact that I traveled back home a week later and live in the US? Now, this isn’t even considering where the actual transaction is taking place, which could be a server farm somewhere in California, Iceland or Tokyo.  The complexity and potential challenges for rights holders and rights management could be tremendous.

These questions about when is a new thing a new thing are critically important question in the identification of objects and the registration and systems that underlie them. How we manage this information and the decisions we take now about what is important, what we should track, and how should we distinguish between these items will have profound impacts on how we distribute information decades into the future.

ISTC and Ur-Texts

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

Tuesday, I attended a meeting on the International Standard Text Code (ISTC), organized by the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) in Manhattan.  The meeting was held in conjunction with the release of a white paper on the ISTC by Michael Holdsworth entitled ISTC: A Work in Progress. This is a terrific paper and worthy of reading for those interested in this topic and I commend it to you all, if you haven’t seen it.  The paper provides a detailed introduction to the ISTC and what role this new identifier will play in our community.

During the meeting as I was tweeting about the standard, I got into a brief twitter discussion with John Mark Ockerbloom at the University of Pennsylvania Library.  Unfortunately as wonderful as Twitter is for instantaneous conversation, it is not at all easy to communicate nuance.    For that, a longer form is necessary, hence this blog post.

As a jumping off point, let us start with the fact that the ISTC has a fairly good definition about what it is identifying: the text of a work as a distinct abstract item that may be the same or different across different products or manifestations.  Distinguishing between those changes can be critical, as is tying together the various manifestations for collection development, rights and product management reasons.

One of the key principles of the ISTC is that:

“If two entities share identical ISTC metadata, they shall be treated as the same textual work and shall have the same ISTC.”

Where to draw this distinction is quite an interesting point.  As John pointed out in his question to me, “How are works with no definitive original text handled? (e.g. Hamlet) Is there an #ISTC for some hypothetical ur-Hamlet?”  The issue here is that there are multiple “original versions” of the text of Hamlet. Quoting from Wikikpedia: “Three different early versions of [Hamlet] have survived: these are known as the First Quarto (Q1), the Second Quarto (Q2) and the First Folio (F1). Each has lines, and even scenes, that are missing from the others.”

In this case, the three different versions would each have three different ISTCs assigned to them, since the text of the versions is different.  They could be noted as related to the other ISTCs (as well as the cascade of other related editions) in the descriptive metadata fields.  Hamlet is a perfect example of where the ISTC could be of critical value, since those who have an interest in the variances between the three different versions would want to know which text is the basis of the copy of Hamlet they are purchasing, since there are significant differences between the three copies.

Perhaps most stringent solution in keeping with the letter of the standard might be that the First Quatro, have been the first known to published, since it was the first to appear in the Stationers’ Register in 1602 although it likely was not published until summer or fall 1603.  The Second Quarto and First Folio were published later—in 1604 and 1623 respectively.  Although the first Quatro is often considered “inferior” to later versions, assigning it the “Source” ISTC would be no different than if it were published today, and subsequently re-published as a revision (which would be assigned a related ISTC).  While there has been controversy about the source text of Hamlet that probably began not long after the day it was published and has certainly grown as the field of scholarship around Shakespeare has grown, for the purposes of identification and linking does the “Ur-text” matter?

Certainly, a user would want to know that this is the canonical version, be that the Second Quatro or First Folio versions.  The critical point is that we identify things differently when there are important reasons to make the distinctions.  In the case of Hamlet, there is a need to make the distinction.  Which copy is considered “original” and which is a derivative isn’t nearly as important as making the distinction.

It is valuable to note the description in the ISTC User’s Manuel in the section on Original works and derivations.  Quoting from the Manuel:

7.1    What is an “original” work?

For the purposes of registration on the ISTC database, a work may be regarded as being “original” if it cannot be adequately described using one or more of the controlled values allowed for the “Derivation Type” element (specified elsewhere in this document).

A work is considered to be “original” for registration purposes unless it replicates a significant proportion of a previously existing work or it is a direct translation of the previously existing one (where all the words may be different but the concepts and their sequence are the same). It should be noted that this is a different approach from that used by FRBR2, which regards translations as simply different “expressions” of the same work.

The “Source ISTC” metadata field is an optional one and is “Used to identify the original work(s) from which this one is derived (where appropriate). It is recommended that these are provided whenever possible.”  In the case of the three Hamlet “original versions” this field would likely be left blank, since there is no way to distinguish between the “Original” and the “Derivation”.  Each of the three versions could be considered “Original”, but this would get messy if one were not noted as original.   There is a “Derivation type” metadata field with restricted values, although “Unspecified” is one option.  Since there isn’t necessarily a value in the “original” distinction, there isn’t a point arguing about which is original.  In the real world, what will likely be the “original” will be the first version that receives the assignment.

This same problem will likely be true of a variety of other texts, especially from distant historical periods.   A focus on core principles, that we distinguish what is important, that disambiguation is important, and avoiding the philosophical arguments surrounding “original” versus “derivative”, just as the ISTC community is trying to avoid “ownership” of the record, will help to serve the entire community.

There is a lot more information about the ISTC provided by NISO. Members and subscribers can read the article that Andy Weissberg VP of Identifier Services & Corporate Marketing at Bowker wrote in Information Standards Quarterly last summer, The International Standard Text Code (ISTC): An Overview and Status Report. For non-subscribers, Andy Weissberg also presented during the 2009 NISO-BISG Changing Standards Landscape forum prior to ALA’s Annual conference in Chicago.  You can view his presentation slides or watch the video from that meeting.

The International ISTC Agency Ltd is a not-for-profit company, limited by guarantee and registered in England and Wales. Its sole purpose is to implement and promote the ISO 21047 (ISTC) standard and it is operated by representatives of its founding members, namely RR Bowker, CISAC, IFRRO, and Nielsen Book Services.

The first edition of “ISO 21047 Information and Documentation – International Standard Text Code (ISTC)” was published by ISO in March 2009. It is available for purchase in separate English and French versions either as an electronic download or printed document from ISO.