DOIs and learning curation

By John Helmer October 31, 2015

Logo of doi.orgWhat exactly is a DOI and why should you care?

Well, DOIs (or digital object identifiers) are very handy to know about if you’re doing digital learning content curation. Articles and talks about learning curation tend to focus on social media, but at its heart, this type of curation is about finding, filtering, organising and sharing valuable learning content.

In her post about the skills of learning curation on this blog, Lumesse Learning’s Carole Bower encourages a healthy scepticism about any content found on the web. She encourages curators to ask: ‘who wrote this piece? Why did they write it? Did they have an agenda? Is it a primary source?’ An important function of of curation, she says is to ‘build a library of trusted sources’.

Clearly, establishing the value and trustworthiness of a piece of learning content is important for curators, and as we know, that is often a problem on the web. But there his another big problem with web content, too.

It moves around. Websites come and go, or are redesigned, content libraries change ownership; all of which leads to broken links, and 404 messages – a phenomenon often referred to as ‘link rot’.

So as a curator, once you’ve found a piece of content and deemed it trustworthy, how can you make sure when you share it that it will still be accessible on that link in six month’s time, next year, or the year after that?

DOIs can help with both these problems.

What is a DOI?

If you have studied for an undergraduate or post-graduate qualification with an academic institution in recent years, then it’s quite possible you know all about DOIs already. Or possibly you’ve come across them, tucked away in the corners of scholarly articles, but never quite worked out exactly what they were. DOIs come out of the scholarly publishing world.

My guess, though, is that a lot of people in L&D didn’t come into the field via an academic route, or else did their academic learning a while ago, before DOIs were in widespread use.

So for these people, here’s a quick explanation of what they are and where they come from.

Perhaps the easiest way to explain this is to describe how a DOI differs from a normal web link, or URL. The chief difference, put simply, is that a DOI identifies an object, while a URL identifies a location. So the DOI points to the content object itself, rather than to the specific place on the web where the object is located at a certain time. The beauty of DOIs is that even if the location of the content object identified happens to move to a different website, the DOI will point to it in the new location. DOIs therefore offer more stable linking, and avoid all those troublesome 404s.

DOIs were developed in the late 1990s to provide stable linking for scholarly articles – the peer-reviewed papers that, together with books, provide the foundation of academic knowledge. There is a lot of ferment in the scholarly world about these matters, but for all practical purposes, the peer-reviewed article from a reputable academic journal can still be said to represent the gold standard of trustworthiness in academic knowledge.

As a learner, you might go through a whole career in business without ever consulting a scholarly paper. Likewise, you could take an undergraduate humanities degree from a university without bothering your head too much about them. But if you pursue any sort of learning at post-graduate level, or wish to advance in a professional area of practice (e.g. engineering, pharmaceuticals, food science, agriculture) – or if you just happen to have the sort of mind that isn’t content with second-hand knowledge, and always wants to go back to the original source of received wisdom – sooner of later you are going to run into DOIs.

As an L&D professional, you might well have to support learners who are operating at this level, and need you to curate material from ‘trusted sources’. DOIs will be useful for pointing them towards trusted content.

Using DOIs

DOIs often appear in the form of clickable links, like the ones below: – OR – doi:10.1000/182

However, they also appear as static, non-clickable references like this:

doi: 10.3390/fi1010003

Where DOIs appear in the static form, they can be turned into clickable links by preceeding the DOI with a DOI resolver such as – (make sure not to leave any spaces!) There is a handy guide to using DOIs to find content online here.

Alternatively you can go to, the website of the International DOI Foundation (IDF) the not-for-profit governance and management body for DOIs and enter the DOI on its home page.

If you want to start assigning DOIs to learning content objects you have inhouse, would do that through one of the registration agencies such as CrossRef. Things become slightly more complicated here however, and you might find you are straying into the territory of knowledge management, if that exists as a separate discipline within your organisation.

Further reading

There is a lot more to know about DOIs, including the metadata that is associated with them, and the services provided by registration agencies, but it might well be that all you need to know is how to identify one and to know what to do with it to link your learners to trusted content. We have given a simplified account here, but there is a lot of information about them online if you need to take your knowledge further.

One important thing to appreciate, however is that DOIs are an internationally accepted standard – ISO standard (ISO 26324-2012) – and an important part of the growing knowledge infrastructure being built to aid learning on the web.

And their use is growing steadily. According to Wikipedia, by late April 2013, 85 million DOI names had been assigned by some 9,500 organizations: ‘… among the objects that have been identified by DOI so far are millions of journal articles, science datasets, movies and broadcasting metadata, government documents, and a growing variety of other material’.

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