Thursday, 20 March 2014 10:45

Far Afield—An ORCID By Any Other Name

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Luarel Haak credit ORCIDORCID's Executive Director, Laurel Haak,
Photo: ORCID
It's not a corsage but ORCID is a way of pinning your scientific identity firmly to your scientific chest. ORCID is, of course, an acronym. It stands for Open Researcher and Contributor ID but ORCID is also the tiny organization with global reach that issues unique alphanumeric identifiers for contributors to the world's scholarly and scientific literature. ORCID, the organization, refers to the identifier as the ORCID ID, which both makes sense and sounds redundant. As children, we all believe that we are what the British call a "one off" because it's self-evident that there is only one you, even if "you" are half a set of twins or have a common surname like Wang, Kim, Smith, Garcia, Müller, Murphy, or Rossi. But in research, convincing the wider world that you are THE one who published THIS paper is not trivial. Thus comes ORCID: one researcher, one 16-digit number (that is also a unique URL).

Behold: Me. Anyone can—and everyone in science should—get their own ORCID ID. Thirty seconds, no cost, and you decide how public/private you want to make your information.

ORCID is both an old idea and a rapidly developing one. International efforts to standardize references go back to the 1920s, gaining ground after WWII with the creation of ISO, the standards authority that you see touted outside the factories of forward-looking corporations. But the need for unique identifiers for scientists and scholars became acute in recent times with the explosion of scholarly publishing, world science, and internet searching. Various government policy leaders, journal publishers, librarians, academics, and information scientists have struggled to construct unique identifiers in various projects to bring all of science and all scientists under one electronic roof. They have not had great success as Drs. Wang, Smith, and Garcia can tell you.

By 2010, a consensus among key players "crystalized" around the realization that an independent non-profit was the only way to launch an ID system that would be universal and non-threatening. It had to be non-proprietary and devoted to open data, open source, global participation, and respectful of privacy. ORCID was incorporated that year but it took another year to figure out how rival publishers, universities, and government agencies could together finance a free-to-individuals ORCID system through organizational membership payments. In April 2012, they hired an Executive Director.

Enter Laurel Haak, A neurobiologist with a PhD from Stanford and a postdoc at NIH, Haak had become interested in the wider issues of postdoc employment and career direction. She left the bench for AAAS to write for what is now called Science Careers before moving to the U.S. National Academies as a program officer for its Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy. Haak then jumped into the private sector, joining an "enterprise IT" company called Discovery Logic that was eventually bought out by Thomson Reuters. In 2012, she became the first employee of ORCID.

ORCID has no offices, says Haak. It is a "distributed organization" with six employees, six contractors, and racks of leased servers. The ORCID registry opened for business online in October 2012. By the end of last year, ORCID had half a million registrants. The pace is picking up. When registered on March 11, there were just over 584,000 unique IDs. Three days later, there were 601,125.

But what number would represent a critical mass? Haak says that the number of active researchers in the world today has been estimated between 7 million and 20 million. Haak believes that 1.5 million ORCID registrants would represent a critical threshold and 3-5 million would be a working saturation point. Currently participation varies from discipline to discipline and country to country. (Cell biologists are poorly represented at the moment.)

But more are rallying to ORCID's flag. Graduate programs in places like Texas A&M are signing up their incoming students en masse for ORCID IDs. The Sloan Foundation came forward last year with a major grant to support integration by universities and professional associations. Research funders in countries such as Portugal and soon Ireland are requiring their researchers to use an ORCID ID. You can link your ORCID ID to your submissions to journals published by Nature Publishing, Science, or Elsevier. You can embed it in your NIH grant proposal or Wellcome Trust application. Europe PubMedCentral is now searchable by ORCID ID. The ORCID system runs in English, French, Spanish, and two forms of Chinese. Haak says that in the spring it will be functional in Korean, Russian, Portuguese, and Japanese.

There are innumerable challenges ahead, says Haak. There is already some connectivity with federal funding agencies but, for example, the eventual position of ORCID within the NIH's ambitious new SciENcv (Science Experts Network Curriculum Vitae project) is a work in progress. Building ORCID was never going to be easy, says Haak. Yet governments, private corporations, scientists themselves, all have much to gain from an integrated, universal identifier system. "But it requires that everybody get involved on some level," Haak says.

First ORCID requires you to be you

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

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