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A new initiative promises to solve the problem of identifying researchers, writes Neil Jacobs of JISC

Last week a major international initiative launched its registry to provide researchers with unique identifiers. ORCID (Open Researcher and Contributor Identifier) numbers should start to solve the problems of researchers with the same name or researchers who change their names. It is not about tagging all researchers and tracking their movements but about linking public information to people, accurately and reliably. It should mean significant time savings for researchers and those who support them.

An American survey in 2009 that found an average of 42 per cent of research time was spent on administration. This is unlikely to have declined, and is a poor use of researchers’ time. One source of frustration is the seemingly-constant demands from publishers, funders and universities to provide the same kinds of information – name, institutional affiliation, publication record, current and past projects, and so on.

There have been several attempts to solve this problem, or parts of it. Commercial companies, such as Elsevier and Thomson Reuters, offer their own solutions and identifiers that researchers can acquire. In the UK, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) operates a staff identifier scheme for everyone employed in universities, but often a researcher will acquire a new HESA staff identifier when they move between universities (even though this is not meant to happen), so it is harder for them to bring their information with them when they move jobs. It would be possible, of course, to ask all researchers to put all their information into a single big database and keep it up-to-date but, apart from concerns about control over that data, we are all aware of the track record of similar large IT projects. So, what was to be done?

The first step was to get everyone together. We needed to build a consensus to avoid precisely the fragmentation that leads to researchers (and others) being asked for the same information multiple times. The recommended approach also has the backing of the international scholarly-publishing industry, which is vital to the initiative’s success as publishers provide core services for researchers.

Some have asked, why ORCID? One apparently alternative approach that was considered by the UK Researcher Identifier group (a UK group convened by JISC) was the International Standard Name Identifier (ISNI). ISNI is supported by the creative industries and library community. Its scope is much broader than ORCID (Mickey Mouse will have an ISNI, but not an ORCID), but we felt that the ORCID approach put the control over the data much more clearly in the hands of the researchers themselves. However, we expect that the point will become moot, as talks between the ISNI and ORCID boards suggest that they will become partners, to the advantage of both.

There have been other concerns raised, for example about whether having data held on US servers is acceptable, given the provisions of the US Patriot Act. This should not be a problem. Most – if not all – of the information will be public anyway, and researchers will have full control over how much information is held, if any. Furthermore, the ORCID initiative will comply with all the relevant provisions of “Safe Harbor” under US law.

Of course, endorsing ORCID would just be the start of the process. There will be work to be done by universities, funders, publishers and researchers themselves. Universities might need to adjust their systems to take full advantage of ORCIDs. Publishers and funders might want to incorporate ORCIDs into their manuscript and grant proposal submission systems respectively (many publishers have already done this). Libraries might want to consider how to exploit ORCIDs to improve their services. In order to justify these kinds of investment, there will need to be specific evidence of the benefits, beyond those already considered.

This is a unique opportunity to solve an age-old problem that causes universities and researchers endless and costly inconvenience. The solution is in the hands of the research community and will stay there.

Neil Jacobs is JISC programme director for digital infrastructure