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Name Ambiguity and ORCID

by Tim Byrne on Mon, 28 Oct, 2013

Wouldn’t it be nice if your name were a unique identifier and nobody else had the same name as you?  Unfortunately, most of us share our names with a number of other people, most of whom we have never met and never will.  But we have all probably experienced the challenge and frustration of trying to find a specific person from a list of people with the same name.  Remember when we used phone books?  Trying to pick out the person you needed from a listing of multiple names?  Actually, searching the internet doesn’t make this process any easier.

Sometimes you have access to additional info about the person that helps you decide which one is the person you want:  address, age, place of employment, and friends (if you are using social media).  A lot of times you don’t have any info to help you decide.  Name ambiguity can be a real pain.  Let’s take the name Samuel Adams.  If you were to search Samuel or Sam Adams in Wikipedia, you would find, in addition to the early American patriot, several politicians, a couple of military officers, a golfer, two football players, a CIA analyst, an explorer, a rapper, a writer, a geologist, and a beer.  Wikipedia does have disambiguation pages that are very helpful, but elsewhere, if you aren’t looking for the guy the beer was named after, you may have more of a challenge finding the Sam Adams you want.

This problem with name ambiguity is especially severe when you are searching scholarly literature.  You may want the research output of a specific scholar, but there may be several authors with the same name.  The growth of inter-disciplinary research makes it hard to limit by discipline.  Then too there is a real lack of uniformity in how authors’ names are cited.   The same author can be listed with just a first and last name, with a middle initial, with only first initial, or with first and middle initial.  There is also the problem of spelling variations, especially for foreign names.  This name ambiguity makes it extremely difficult to reliably identify all scholarly works of a specific author.  Even using a computer algorithm to disambiguate using location, date, subject area, and co-authorship won’t correctly identify all citations. 

Having each author assigned a unique identifier is really the only way to solve the name ambiguity problem.  Several author identifier initiatives have been started in recent years.  Some have been widely used in specific disciplines or geographic areas.  Some are controlled by commercial entities.  Having multiple efforts also means that some authors are being given multiple identifiers.  However, there is hope blooming on the horizon. The ORCID initiative was started in late 2009 with the goal of crossing boundaries such as disciplines, public versus private initiatives, national versus global, etc. The plan was to integrate in various ways with pre-existing name identifier systems and collect a critical mass that would eventually create a de facto standard.

ORCID, which stands for Open Researcher & Contributor ID, has been working on solving author ambiguity over the last few years.  “ORCID provides two core functions:  a registry to obtain a unique identifier and manage a record of activities and APIs that support system-to-system communication and authentication.”  There is no charge for individuals to use the ORCID registry, to obtain an ID, manage their record of activities and search for others in the Registry.  Memberships are available to organizations that, based on the type of membership, allow them to enhance their records with ORCID identifiers, update ORCID records, receive updates from ORCID, and register their employees and students for ORCID identifiers.  Members include universities, national laboratories, commercial research organizations, research funders, publishers, national science agencies, data repositories, and international professional societies. 

The Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) was one of the first federal organizations to embrace and champion the ORCID concept; the National Institutes of Health is the other. As yet, there are very few DOE authors sending ORCID IDs to OSTI's databases.  OSTI is encouraging Scientific and Technical Information Program (STIP) representatives across DOE to, in turn, encourage authors at their labs and offices to sign up for an ORCID.  Anyone desiring more information about OSTI's participation in ORCID can contact OSTI's Point-of-Contact for ORCID, Jannean Elliott.

This SciTech Connect Record has an example of an author with an ORCID ID. If you select this author’s name on the citation screen, you will be given the choice of searching the author's name in SciTech Connect, searching the author's ORCID number in SciTech Connect, or searching the author’s ORCID number at for other publications from the author not found in SciTech Connect. While ability to search SciTech Connect by ORCID ID is now available, the search by ORCID number won’t yield many results until we get a significant number of DOE authors registered with ORCID IDs.

ORCID’s potential to be useful as a vehicle for connecting journal articles to technical reports is of particular interest to OSTI.  This is a long-standing challenge for publishers of scholarly journals, as well as for federal agencies that produce technical reports.  For DOE national laboratory contracts, OSTI will rely upon ORCIDs to enable linking between journal articles and associated technical reports. Unlike a grant number, there is no number that uniquely identifies a lab project. While OSTI’s internal reports system captures contract numbers, such numbers cover multiple projects and do not enable linking between the version of record or accepted manuscripts (VOR/AM) and related reports. This method for linking can be aided by “fuzzy” matching based on titles and other metadata to identify related articles/reports.

In October 2012, the ORCID registry was opened, allowing researchers to register for ORCID IDs and link their works to their ID.  The system is still in the early stages of development and there is still a lot of functionality to be developed.  Registering for an ORCID ID at is quite simple and takes less than a minute.  Once you have registered, you have the option of adding your works and biographical info to your record.  Coming soon you will be able to add affiliations, grants, and patents.   To aid in updating your works, ORCID automatically searches your name in the CrossRef database and presents you with a list of articles from which you can choose those that belong to you.  There is also an option to manually add works that may not have been included in the search results.  In addition to issuing unique author identifiers, ORCID will also enable linking to existing author identifier services such as Scopus Author ID and ResearcherID.

ORCID currently has close to 340,000 live ORCID IDs.  81,000 ORCID IDs are linked to at least one work with a total of over 2.2 million works linked to ORCID IDs.

While one would expect that the types of works listed in the ORCID Author record to include books and articles, ORCID has a very expansive list of over fifty works or publication types that you can choose from, including cartoon comic, encyclopedia article, live performance, photographs, raw data, and web site. Clearly, ORCID wants to insure that authors can claim ownership of their entire creative output.

To get a better understanding of ORCID, I decided to go ahead and register myself.  It was very easy and I was done in about thirty seconds.  My ORCID ID is 000-0002-8766-5421. This almost feels like getting a new Social Security Number.  Once registered and logged in to ORCID, I manually entered some of my publications, which you can see here.  I was impressed with the service and am now anxiously awaiting the implementation of new functionality over the next several months.   


Related OSTI Products: SciTech Connect


About the Author

Tim Byrne's picture
Tim Byrne
Senior Outreach Librarian
Senior Outreach Librarian with over thirty years of experience working in academic libraries with government information and technical reports.

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