How to Make Your Authors & Books Stand Out With ISNI
In 2004, I struck out on my own as a consultant. I set up a website and email account that used my name in both. I set up a Google News alert so that I would get notifications when my company was mentioned on the web.
And I started getting mail -- email and physical mail -- for someone else. Another Laura Dawson -- a clothing designer, as it turned out. At the time, there was yet a third Laura Dawson with a public profile. She designed glass beads. And later came a fourth, a trade expert in Canada.
We were all out there, writing, giving interviews about our expertise, being profiled. And each of us was distinct, in very different lines of business. There was absolutely no overlap in anything we did, yet we were still confused for one another.
The purpose of the ISNI (International Standard Name Identifier) is to uniquely identify public figures. It was developed in 2010 and published by ISO in 2012, and is in the same family of standards as the ISBN and the DOI (Digital Object Identifier). While we have identifiers for just about every form of intellectual property and product, the ISNI identifies the people and organizations that create that intellectual property and those products. Authors, composers, musicians, actors, directors, producers, public figures, music labels, publishing companies—anybody who has created or contributed to the creation of intellectual property or products is eligible for an ISNI.
ISNI is particularly helpful in two cases: differentiating people with the same or similar names, and collocating people who have made multiple contributions across a variety of media. Large publishing houses, for example, frequently have similarly-named authors in their stables and royalty tracking is made easier with an identifier like ISNI.
In addition to helping with rights tracking, the ISNI plays a central role in connecting various different sorts of systems together. In use by Wikipedia, Musicbrainz, the British Library, Harvard University, Library of Congress, and a number of other organizations, ISNI provides a bridge between all these data sets, a way of linking all these different collections together with a common identifier. This enhances discoverability across the web.
How Does ISNI Work?
ISNI works differently than identifiers like the ISBN or DOI. Because identifying a person is trickier than identifying a book or journal article, the structure for that identification is designed to safeguard identity and reduce errors.
Thus, any given registration agency doesn’t do the actual assigning of numbers to names -- that’s done centrally by the Assignment Agency, which reports to the ISNI-IA Board. The current Assignment Agency is OCLC. So they do the day-to-day work of assigning the numbers to the names, maintaining the algorithm that allows for some level of automation, and manually checking for errors when necessary.
The registration agencies work with clients to package files for bulk assignment. Registration agencies can also process individual applications. In this way, registration agencies form a liaison between clients (end-users) and the Assignment Agency, so that the AA can focus on the assignments, the algorithm that governs automated assignments, and other specialized issues.
How Does ISNI Differ from ORCID?
Scholars and researchers may be familiar with another identifier, the Open Researcher and Contributor ID, or ORCID. In fact, the ORCID numbers are “carved out” from the ISNI database so that there is no data integrity issue or confusion between the two.
Strictly speaking, however, ORCIDs are not a “subset” of ISNIs. The assignment criteria for ORCID is very different from that of ISNI. ORCID is designed to be adopted by researchers at the beginning of their careers; it is not necessary to have a publication to obtain an ORCID. In fact, the only assignment criteria is an email address.
ORCIDs are closely tied to researcher funding, and are only assigned to living people. Isaac Newton, for example, would not be eligible for an ORCID, but would be eligible for an ISNI.
So Who Are the Registration Agencies?
In many cases, they are national libraries and aggregators. A full list of them is available at
Unlike ISBN, an ISNI registration agency is not bound by territory. There can be more than one per country. ISNI registration agencies tend to form around specific interests.
The BnF, for example, is focused on French-related interests. Ringgold registers only organization names. The British Library is focused on UK-related contributors. Iconoclaste specializes in French-Canadian musicians. Numerical Gurus is focused on creators of books, music, video and film, and other media and entertainment content.
Numerical Gurus is currently the only registration agency in the U.S., and it is the only registration agency worldwide that also provides applications for individual contributors. The rest only do bulk uploads.
Where Can I Go For More Information?
Related story: The CRIS Revolution & How It Affects Academic Publishing
Laura Dawson is CEO of Numerical Gurus, LLC, consulting company providing services to the information, librarym and book industries. Dawson has consulted to numerous organizations in these verticals, primarily focusing on solving problems related to metadata, identifiers, Linked Data, semantic web applications, and structured content.