About the “What researchers mean by...” series

This research term explanation first appeared in a regular column called “What researchers mean by…” that ran in the Institute for Work & Health’s newsletter At Work for over 10 years (2005-2017). The column covered over 35 common research terms used in the health and social sciences. The complete collection of defined terms is available online or in a guide that can be downloaded from the website.

Published: October 2011

If you’ve been reading about published research over the past few years, you’ve probably noticed a new vehicle for permanently housing scholarly material: the DOI or Digital Object Identifier. An alphanumeric code, it solves a lot of problems for anyone searching for documents in the vast arena of cyberspace.

A DOI is a permanent name given to documents, publications and other resources on the Internet, which is used rather than a URL (i.e. a typical web address). A URL can change over time but a DOI cannot. The International DOI Foundation, which invented and controls the system, defines a DOI as “a name, not a location, for an entity on digital networks.”

Because a DOI is meant to never change, it provides a permanent link to any electronic article. Most electronically available articles have DOIs, and they can usually be found printed on the article itself. DOIs look something like this: doi:10.1111/j.1439-0426.1997.tb00116.x

DOIs are not dissimilar to a book’s ISBN—that is, the idea of having a number associated with a document is not new. But for libraries, the change is meaningful because it makes things easier. DOIs solve a lot of problems and allow those in library sciences to locate and verify electronic documents quickly and efficiently. They allow librarians to focus and provide a unique identifier to others who would like to locate specific documents.

DOIs are particularly helpful for several reasons:

  • URLs are not stable and often disappear;
  • print journals often have standard bibliographic information (volume, issue, page numbers) that help track down articles, but electronic journals and documents may not;
  • researchers sometimes use titles for conferences, lay articles and reports that are very similar to those used for journal articles, and it can be difficult to differentiate between them when searching by title; and
  • Google-type searches can lead to hundreds of hits, making it hard to locate and verify documents.

DOI adoption has been rapid. The International DOI Foundation was established in 1998. Elsevier, the Amsterdam-based health and science, started using DOIs on all of its journal articles around 2003. By late April 2011, more than 50 million DOI names had been assigned by some 4,000 organizations.

However, unlike URLs, the DOI system is not open to everyone. Only organizations that meet the necessary contractual obligations and are willing to pay can assign DOIs.

Although some journals are not yet participating in the move to DOI, it is expected that they may do so in time, as part of the larger electronic continuum.

How to find an article using a DOI

When you see a DOI, most of the time, you can click on it to access the article, provided you have the necessary access rights. In case you see a DOI in a print document, you can do the following three steps:

1. Copy the DOI of the document you want to open.
2. Go to: www.doi.org.
3. Enter the entire DOI in the text box provided, and then click ‘Go.’

Otherwise you can type the DOI into a search engine, such as Google, and the relevant study usually comes up.

Source: At Work, Issue 66, Fall 2011: Institute for Work & Health, Toronto