The Work

It’s Not Just ISBNs Anymore: DOI

Oh, yeah. Here we go. Now we’re cooking with ambiguity. The DOI is a slippery thing to grasp, and the user manual is a skillion pages long.

The DOI is the digital object identifier. Yes, it identifies digital objects. It also digitally identifies objects that may not themselves be digital but may have a digital presence (like an author who has a website, or a printed book that has a database-driven product page on Amazon or B&

It is a dumb number. There is no reliable, lasting meaning in the digits. It’s a prefix and a suffix, with a slash in between them.

Like this: 10.1000/123456

All DOIs start with the number 10. (For now.) The number after the 10 refers to the original agency through which the DOI was assigned (which could go out of business or get bought or sold). The suffix is the identification of that particular object – a book, a journal article, a website – and the suffix can be any length and contain letters, numbers…even other identifiers.

So…what’s it for?


No, really…anything you want, so long as it’s in a networked environment.

  • A book – doi:10.2345/ISBN 978123456789 (see what I did there?)
  • An article – doi:10.2233/66r97q
  • An entire journal – doi:10.6622/ISSN 6767-9012
  • Author website – doi:10.0033/ISNI 1233 4566 7899 1112

Okay – so what does the DOI actually do?


“Resolves” is the network scientist’s way of saying “it goes somewhere”. The DOI helps you find things. It has two qualities that make sure that you will always be able to find something that has a DOI identifying it.

  • Persistence – URLs change. DOIs don’t. If the author website uses a DOI, it can get moved from one platform to another…but people will always be able to find it.
  • Multiple resolution – Sometimes a thing (a chapter) resides in more than one place on the web. A single DOI can send a person to the multiple places where that thing lives. OR…sometimes a thing (a book) has more than one component (a chapter, an author biography, the book itself). A single DOI can direct a person to each of these components.

Which is pretty huge. ISBNs don’t go anywhere. ISSNs don’t go anywhere. ISNIs don’t go anywhere. The DOI is a kind of identifier that makes other identifiers…actionable. You can do things with them.

So what’s the magic?

Like the best magic, it operates on basic principles: in this case that of identifiers – they identify. The metadata describes.

  • The identifier tells the DOI system that a thing exists, and is unambiguously that unique thing and not any other thing.
  • The metadata tells the DOI system what that thing is, where it lives, and how to get to it.
  • Even if the metadata changes, the DOI remains the same. (Think of the price of an ebook. The price goes up, the ISBN is still the same. If the ISBN is embedded in the DOI, the DOI remains the same as well.)

So who’s using this thing? Mostly, right now, journals publishers – you can go here for a great application of DOIs in journals. But also the military! Libraries. Science, technical and medical publishers. And – according to our database – other publishers who are working with “chunks”, sub-book content that needs to be identified on a granular level.

Using a DOI means that you can resolve an ISBN simultaneously to a purchase page, the author website, and an excerpt. It means you can resolve an ISBN to sub-book components (chapters, charts, sections) which are sold separately. Or  you can resolve an ISBN to locations of additional material – enhanced content, supplements, lab manuals, workbooks, card decks, calendars….

Basically, the DOI helps a publisher upsell – additional stuff like related titles, t-shirts, games and toys, posters, audio or video files. If you can identify a thing, and you have the rights to that thing, the DOI can help you organize all the data so you can sell that thing and a bunch of other things besides.

I’m angling to get some pilots going so I can actually point to different websites and people can see it in action. It’s a cool little thing, even if it is almost inexplicable. If you want a deep dive, you can go here.

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