Things change; our metadata needs to change, too.

Letter from the Executive Director, April 2021

People often assume that metadata is static and, once set, it never changes. This assumption leads people into a variety of problems when managing systems, identifiers, and particularly metadata records. For example, there has long been a challenge facing those who want to use publisher-supplied ONIX metadata as a basis for library cataloging records. While it might make sense to use some of this data for this purpose, it’s important to keep in mind that publishers create ONIX data primarily to facilitate sales, which can begin before a title is published or even completed.  So, ONIX data may contain errors, or rather information that was correct pre-publication, but is subsequently updated. Sometimes these changes can be minor, while others might be significant; say, an author was dropped or the subject was changed significantly as the work neared completion.  

Metadata suitable for one purpose at one time, like pre-publication promotion, may not be suitable for another purpose, like library cataloging. The reality is that life changes, and that things change over time, and metadata that describes those things needs to change as well. Publishers often move their content from one platform to another, which causes problems throughout the distribution chain for content. NISO is seeking to improve this via a draft recommended practice, currently out for public comment, on platform migrations.  We can also encounter challenges with identifiers for people and institutions, or rather with the metadata associated with those identifiers. One of the problems with institutional identifiers like ISNI, the Ringgold Institutional ID, and the new Research Organization Registry (ROR), is not that the main institution changes (though this sometimes happens), but that its sub-entities change, merge, or cease operations over time. Managing these sub-entities and their relationships is a significant and difficult task. There are also other challenges related to individuals.

Last month, NISO launched another new initiative to address the issue of post-publication name changes and how content distributors should recognize that people maychange their identities. A name change is perhaps most common, but other changes are becomingincreasingly common. When a person changes their gender identity, they may wish to have their previously published literature reflect their transition. In part this is an accuracy issue, but it is also an equity and recognition issue. One should have the right to have the record updated to reflect their identity expression. We, as a community of curators of published content, have a duty to uphold both accuracy and currency. It is within our power to correct metadata records, and we should do so, while also noting that the record was changed or corrected in case one is searching for some previously identified object or entity. Of course, as with all things, the devil is in the details about how we as a community should undertake these changes, at whose instigation, and under what circumstances, and how changes should propagate throughout the network of discovery, delivery, and preservation services.  This working group is now forming and we are seeking interested parties to engage in setting the recommended practice.

This is one aspect of a broader initiative that was announced last week and about which you will be hearing much more in the coming months. Earlier this year, the NISO Board adopted a DEI policy and began forming a new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee to champion and advance consensus-related efforts to improve NISO’s various constituent communities. The group held its first meeting in March and is organizing a robust agenda, which includes community input, convening a meeting to discuss priorities, and setting potential work items, as well as seeking to identify areas where cross-industry collaboration can improve DEI-related goals.  As the group develops its program of work, we will be making further announcements about their priorities and how you can get involved.

As we watch the flourishing of spring in the northern hemisphere, it’s also valuable to note that other things are changing as well. I hope that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is reaching your area and that each of you will be able to get access to a shot that will allow us all to return to something closer to normal. Access to the vaccine is as much an equity issue as it is a public health issue. Each person around the world needs access, if we are all to be safe. In the meantime, I hope that each of you remains healthy while we patiently await our turns. 


Todd Carpenter
Executive Director, NISO