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New “COinS” Scheme Seeks to Open URLs for Library Users
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Posted On August 1, 2005
Some Web visionaries have concocted a scheme to embed complete citation information in Web pages. Inspired by U.K. researcher Dan Chudnov and other innovators, Eric Hellman, Ross Singer, and others have invented COinS, which is short for “ContextObject in Span.” (“Span” refers to the HTML tag used to embed COinS metadata.) The team has created a specification and defined it at http://ocoins.info.

COinS seeks to address a fundamental problem: Imagine you are searching Google Scholar or a blog or a random Web site, and you find a citation to an article that is critical to your work. The article isn’t freely available on the Web, but it is syndicated to one or more full-text resources. You are affiliated with a company or a university that has licensed the journal for online delivery via a content aggregator. You just want to click on the citation and see the full text of the article; you don’t want to have to go to your library’s home page and start your search all over again. COinS is an attempt to address this problem.

COinS allows content providers to publish sufficient metadata so that you can click on a hyperlink and (assuming your local institution has licensed a database that includes the journal in its collection) seamlessly download the full text of the article in question. The OpenURL standard defines a scheme to transport metadata about a cited work—author, title, etc.—over the Web. COinS defines a way for a Web content provider to embed bibliographic metadata into an HTML document.

Last week, Openly Informatics announced an implementation of COinS as a plug-in to the Firefox browser. If a user visits a Web site that has a COinS-compliant citation, the plug-in allows the user to retrieve the relevant article from the locally licensed database with a click or two. The new plug-in is available at http://www.openly.com/openurlref and is compatible with Google Scholar.

Eric Hellman, president of Openly Informatics, announced his company’s Firefox plug-in. When asked who will benefit from COinS, he said: “I think it’s reasonable to think that free public databases will be early adopters, along with the more technically capable publishers supporting open-access content.”

Ross Singer, library applications developer at Georgia Tech and a contributor to the COinS initiative (in fact, he coined the term “COinS”), explained the relevance of this development: “[T]he real gain is removing institutional identity from OpenURLs (since, in reality, most people probably belong to more than one community).”

Noted digital library expert Karen Coyle observed: “The promise of COinS could provide some of the motivation that is needed to cause publishers and authors to view citations as potentially ‘actionable’ data. This is an important step in the development of ‘dynamic hypertext.’”

Stephen Abram, vice president of innovation at SirsiDynix, notes that they’ll be watching COinS closely. “Since Openly Informatics is our partner for the Sirsi Resolver OpenURL resolver product, we’re pretty excited by the potential of COinS. It’s so brand new that I can’t predict what its impact will be, but clearly this is a great step forward in ensuring that students get ‘real’ seamless access to the full document or object. This is the Holy Grail.”

It will be interesting to see how this story unfolds. Librarians spend substantial funds to provide access to commercial and scholarly databases and lament when their patrons fall back to freely available resources on the Web. COinS represents an effort to bring patrons home to the collections that their library—be it corporate, university, etc.—has already licensed for their benefit.

But here’s the $64,000 question: Will the customers plug in?


Richard W. Wiggins is an author and speaker who specializes in Internet topics.  He is a senior information technologist at the computer center at Michigan State University.

Email Richard W. Wiggins
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