DOI® System and Internet Identifier Specifications


A standard represents an agreement by a community to do things in a specified way to address a common problem. Whilst the DOI community has developed the DOI System, it has also ensured conformance with relevant generic external formal standards. This factsheet discusses those relevant in the Internet communities (IETF and W3C). There has been considerable debate here on the issue of generic standards for naming objects.

Comparing generic identifier standards

A DOI® name differs from commonly used Internet pointers to material such as the URL, because it identifies an object as a first-class entity, not simply the place where the object is located. The DOI System also differs from standard identifier registries such as the International Standard Book Number (ISBN), International Standard Recording Code (ISRC), etc., because it can be associated with defined services and is immediately actionable on a network.

The comparison of persistent identifier approaches is difficult because they are not all doing the same thing. Imprecisely referring to a set of schemes as 'identifiers' doesn't mean that they can be compared easily. Similarly, when any two technologies (e.g., two web browsers) are compared, the criteria used for comparison must be defined.

Keep in mind the distinction between Handle/DOI and simple controlled namespaces like URN. The Handle System, and even more so the DOI use of the Handle System, is a managed resolution system for identifiers and not just a formula for creating unique strings. That is a significant difference and it means that in addition to a standard syntax we are primarily concerned that the resulting identifiers are persistent, long-lasting entry points to a unified information management system.


Historically there was ambiguity and confusion in the use of these terms. RFC 3986 (2005) aimed to end this by stating that a URI can be classified as a locator, a name, or both. In this view, the term URL refers to the subset of URIs that, in addition to identifying a resource, provide a means of locating the resource; the term URN has been used historically to refer to both URIs under the "urn" scheme (RFC 2141) which are required to remain globally unique and persistent even when the resource ceases to exist or becomes unavailable, and to any other URI with the properties of a name.

RFC 3986 requires that the terms URL and URN be deprecated. This brings a uniformity to the technical treatment of all URIs; however the risk of confusion remains, from:

  1. cited documents which rely on earlier, now superseded, statements of the position;
  2. the use of one simple top level term (URI) may hide useful distinctions which some users, e.g., librarians, may wish to make between a unique name and a location, for example when a named resource is available at multiple locations;
  3. considerations of how widely used non-web identifiers (such as ISBNs, RFIDs, social security numbers, etc) relate to URIs, which can lead to:
    • confusions re identifier, representation, and access mechanism;
    • lack of appreciation of identifier usage outside the WWW;
    • use for non-digital referents; and
    • the requirement to perceive the web as only part of the Internet and the Internet as only part of information.

In the view now considered by RFC 3986 to be obsolete, URIs have two subclasses: URN (identifying names) and URL (identifying single locations). In the RFC 3986 view, web-identifier schemes are all URI schemes, as a given URI scheme may define subspaces; some of these may be access mechanisms (e.g., "http:") whilst others may be namespaces (e.g., "urn:").

The vulnerability of any digital material to unexpected or unintended changes in Internet domain name assignment, and hence to the outcome of domain name resolution, is widely recognised. The fact that domain names are not permanently assigned is regularly cited as one of the main reasons why http: URIs cannot be regarded as persistent identifiers over the long term.


Uniform Resource Identifier (RFC 3986) provides an extensible means for identifying a resource within the World Wide Web. Each URI begins with a scheme name that refers to a specification for assigning identifiers within that scheme; each scheme's specification may further restrict the syntax and semantics of identifiers using that scheme.

URI specification defines (1) an implementation to access a location on a file server, commonly accessed using the http protocol though other protocols are allowed; (2) a syntax for referencing, through which e.g., ISBNs can be specified as URIs. The network path of the URI is implicitly DNS based; the formal URI specification that allows the URI to be opaque following the scheme name, e.g., 'http:' or 'mailto:', has been generally overtaken by practical usage which assumes that the initial URI parser will look for meaningful characters (such as dot and slash).

The use of URIs as identifiers that don't actually identify network resources (for example, they identify an abstract object, or a physical object) was recognised as an unanswered problem in RFC 3305. This usage is important in any semantic application. To address this, the info URI scheme (RFC 4452: http://info-uri.info) was developed by library and publishing communities for "URIs of information assets that have identifiers in public namespaces but have no representation within the URI allocation". OpenURL adopted it and was the key motivation for it. The InfoURI registry was closed to further "info" namespace registrations due to evolving practices in resource resolution and identification, but the registry continues to be supported. DOI was registered in the infoURI scheme.


Uniform Resource Name (RFC 2141) is a specification for defining names (identifiers) of resources for use on the Internet. Locations are assumed to be independent of names. URN resolution is still an active topic of discussion, especially in the library community (e.g. for treatment of National Bibliography Numbers as URN in RFC 3188). RFC 2141 defines (1) a formal registration process as a urn namespace, and (2) accompanying specifications to implement a series of functional requirements for such namespaces. Existing identifiers may thereby be specified as a URN: e.g. an ISBN as urn:isbn:9789521061547; such identifiers may be implemented using a specially written URN plug-in and resolved to URLs: functionally this gives nothing beyond that achieved by coherent management of the corresponding URLs. Note that an active IETF Working Group, "Uniform Resource Names, Revised", has undertaken the task of updating the key URN RFCs, including RFC 2141, which date from 1997-2001, to reflect the URN implementation experience gained since that time. Proposed changes include updating the syntax specification, a formal IANA registration for the 'urn' URI scheme, revised URN examples, and updated descriptions of how URNs are resolved based on current practices.

URN architecture assumes a DNS-based Resolution Discovery Service (RDS) to find the service appropriate to the given URN scheme. However no such widely deployed RDS schemes currently exist: browsers cannot action URN strings without some additional programming in the form of a "plug-in". These carry no guarantee of ready interoperability with other deployments, which may require a different plug-in for each implementation and may use conflicting data approaches. Therefore most existing URN implementations embed the URN as a http URI which contains the URL of the relevant resolution service (e.g. for the URN form of the ISBN shown above, resolved via the Finnish national URN service http://urn.fi, the actionable form of the URN is http://urn.fi/URN:ISBN:978-952-10-6154-7). There is no global service aware of national and/or regional URN resolution services, but there are some proposals to provide one (e.g. http://www.persid.org).

The set of URNs, of the form "urn: nid: nnnnnn", is a URN namespace. ("nid" is here a URN namespace identifier, neither a "URN scheme", nor a "URI scheme.") The official IANA list of registered NIDs at http://www.iana.org/assignments/urn-namespaces lists 40 registered NIDs; many of these are not widely used as URNs (e.g., ISSN, ISBN).

To enable the use of DOIs in workflows that have already standardized on URNs, the DOI proxy servers understand the substitution of a colon in place of the initial slash in a DOI name. DOI names may therefore be expressed as URNs in the doi.org domain by writing, for example, the DOI name 10.123/456 in the form https://doi.org/urn:doi:10.123:456. Note, however, that a DOI suffix is allowed to contain other slashes, and where these occur they must be percent-encoded rather than replaced with a colon: for example, the DOI name 10.123/456ABC/zyz would become https://doi.org/urn:doi:10.123:456ABC%2Fzyz, with the final slash character encoded as %2F.

DOI is not registered as a URN namespace, despite fulfilling all the functional requirements, since URN registration appears to offer no advantage to the DOI System. It requires an additional layer of administration for defining DOI as a URN namespace (the string urn:doi:10.1000/1 rather than the simpler doi:10.1000/1) and an additional step of unnecessary redirection to access the resolution service, already achieved through either http proxy or native resolution. If RDS mechanisms supporting URN specifications become widely available, DOI will be registered as a URN.


Uniform Resource Locator (RFC 1738) is a location on a file server in the WWW; redefined in RFC 3986 as "a type of URI that identifies a resource via a representation of its primary access mechanism (e.g., its network "location"), rather than by some other attributes it may have". In this view "URL is a useful but informal concept" (RFC 3305). In practice, it identifies a single location, and therefore is widely used incorrectly as a (mutable) identifier of the resource at that location (so the same resource at two URLs would have two URL "identifiers"). This bad practice arose from the failure to distinguish name and location in early WWW development. Adding to the problem, URLs carry semantics of the Domain Name they are based on and are therefore unsuitable as opaque identifiers; they may also be contextually qualified. URLs are pervasive as the foremost mechanism of location specification throughout the WWW, but less useful outside it.

Attempts to circumvent the problem of using URLs as citable identifiers by developing persistent identifier alternatives are well documented (PURL, DOI, ARK, etc.).

A DOI name may be represented as a URL (http string) by prefacing the string with https://doi.org/ (or the supported but deprecated http://dx.doi.org) to the DOI of the document (e.g., to resolve the DOI name 10.1000/182, enter into a browser the address: https://doi.org/10.1000/182). Web pages or other hypertext documents can include hypertext links in this form.

Use of domain names in persistent identifier strings

Using DNS strings as persistent identifiers brings the advantages of DNS (universal deployment, simplicity and conformance with existing web site management structures) but also the problems of domain names:

  • Including a domain name in an identifier string embeds a piece of intelligence into the identifier. But a domain name is the wrong intelligence to embed in an identifier string since the referent and domain name are not guaranteed to have the same ownership or management in the future.
  • The attempt to link identifiers with domain names is often based on the assumption that in some way this conveys information about rights. However this assumption conflates several things implied by "ownership" of an ID string: registration of the identifier, management of the identifier, management of the referent, commercial brand, rights associated with the referent, etc. Rights are complex, subject to change, and not usually expressible as one simple string (e.g. consider multiple or shared rights, different territorial rights, time limited rights, dependent rights, etc.) Rights should be expressed through metadata, not in the string itself.
  • Persistent identifier schemes have among other requirements:
    • Functional granularity: it should be possible to identify an entity whenever it needs to be separately distinguished. Since functionality is not pre-determined, hierarchical relationships with other entities are best expressed though metadata, not in the identifier string itself.
    • First class naming: it should be possible to assign an identifier which has no embedded dependency on other separately identified entities. It is not possible to satisfy both of these requirements with a DNS naming scheme.
  • The impression of persistence is as important as actual persistence. Since DNS http strings are widely viewed as not persistent (subject to 404 errors), expressing identifiers as URIs brings the problem that even if well maintained there may be a lack of trust in PIDS expressed as URIs because they look like fragile URLs.

DOI names are not defined in terms of domain names: the ISO Standard (ISO 26324) is an abstract specification. DOI names can be optionally expressed using domain names (URN, URI), usually expressed in the form including the http proxy doi.org/ (or dx.doi.org/). Propagating these identifiers in this form brings the advantages but also the problems of domain names: http-form DOI names expressed through other proxies would have more fragility. The distinction between the DOI name itself and an expression of it in another form should preferably be clearly maintained.

DOI name resolution in native resolver form does not require the use of the DNS (Domain Name System), though does of course when used with the proxy resolver. The Handle System is more appropriate for large numbers of digital objects than DNS, and the DNS administrative model argues against using it as a general-purpose name system (DNS administration typically requires a network administrator, and has no provision for administration per name by anyone other than a network administrator). DNS also has well-recognised problems of security and updating which suggest that it will not be sufficient to assume that existing DNS technology should be adapted to deal with new requirements, rather than inventing something new: peer-to-peer networks already presage this.

URLs are grouped by domain name and then by some sort of hierarchical structure, originally based on file trees, now possibly unconnected from that but still a hierarchy. DOI names offer a more finely grained approach to naming where each name stands on its own, unconnected to any DNS or other hierarchy. This offers beneficial flexibility, especially over time, as the document origins reflected in that hierarchy lose meaning, such as a change in ownership which is reflected in DNS.

Functionality such as URL partial redirection and relative URLs (which assume as "known" or inherited a part of a URL/domain name address) make a lot of sense in the context of URLs. However since DOI names/handles deliberately have a more finely grained approach to naming things, functionality such as partial redirection is dealt with through tools which capitalise on the finer granularity made available through DOI names.

DOI functional requirements

The DOI system is designed to fulfil several additional functional requirements which we believe offer significant advantages in generic naming, notably:

  • Neutral as to implementation. DOI allows but does not require http or other protocols. The design principle is that DOIs are not specific to the web or any other implementation (e.g., information may be delivered in non-web platforms such as PDAs). DOI is designed to be applicable in any environment on the Internet (the global information system linked by a globally unique address space based on the Internet Protocol (IP) using the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite).
  • Flexible as to implementation. The DOI system has been designed around a data and transaction model that can work in a wide variety of environments. The current implementation works well with, but does not require, http or other web protocols, and can be used in any environment on the Internet (the global information system linked by a globally unique address space based on the Internet Protocol (IP) using the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) suite).
  • Granularity of naming and administration at the object level. Allows but does not mandate coarser level granularity tools such as domain names. Specifically, DOI resolution in native resolver form does not require the use of the DNS (Domain Name System): the DNS administrative model argues against using it as a general-purpose name system and has well-recognised problems of security and updating.
  • Neutral as to language/character set. Compatible with, but not restricted to, the ascii character set. DOI names can use the Unicode capability of the Handle System to develop DOI names in Japanese, Chinese, etc., characters. The current DOI syntax restricts initial implementations to ascii simply for ease of adoption, but is intended to be widened (backward compatibility) to Unicode in a future revision.
  • Multiple resolution to typed data offers the possibility of expressing semantic relationships.
  • Social infrastructure providing persistence through organizational backup, data integrity measures, etc.

Other internet persistent identifier schemes

The Handle System is a technology specification for assigning, managing, and resolving persistent identifiers for digital objects and other resources on the Internet. It is the underlying resolution component for the DOI System. The Handle System is the most appropriate persistent identifier management system for the DOI System: see the related DOI factsheet "DOI System and the Handle System". There are several other Internet persistent identifier scheme mechanisms proposed by individuals or organisations, having various emphases on social infrastructure or technology. There are several studies of persistent identifier management sustainable infrastructure and services available, such as the PILIN project.

A persistent uniform resource locator (PURL) is a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) that does not directly describe the location of the resource to be retrieved but instead describes an intermediate (more persistent) location which, when retrieved, results in redirection (e.g. via a 302 HTTP status code) to the current location of the final resource. PURLs are said to be "an interim measure, while Uniform Resource Names (URNs) are being mainstreamed, to solve the problem of transitory URIs in location-based URI schemes like HTTP".

Archival Resource Key (ARK) is a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) that provides a multi-purpose identifier given to information objects of any type. ARKs contain the label ark: in the URL, which sets the expectation that the URL terminated by '?' returns a brief metadata record, and the URL terminated by '??' returns metadata that includes a commitment statement from the current service provider.

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