Do I D.O.I or Don’t I?

Ah yes, the elusive ‘D.O.I.’ number. Do you use it? Do you not use it? Does this article even have one? What is a DOI anyway? Sometimes this little number can leave you feeling a bit confused about what to do next…

Confused traffic signal

Photo by caesararum. CC license.


Time to demystify (and hopefully not re-mystify!).

What the heck is it and where does it come from?

First things first, what is a DOI number?

DOI stands for ‘Digital Object Identifier’. In essence, a DOI number is a unique number (it’s actually alphanumeric) assigned at the individual item level.   Since we’re an academic library, we’ll focus the explanation to the context in which you’ll most commonly see DOIs: scholarly journal articles. In this context, DOIs are incredibly useful because they help to unambiguously identify items. Two articles may both have a similar title–“Toward a theory of management”–but will have unique DOIs which make it crystal clear to which article is being referenced.

When you consider the sheer volume of information (digital and otherwise) which exists, it can be hard to find and re-find the same information again and again. When a DOI is assigned to an article, the article now has a unique identifier and a persistent internet address. That means the article is easier to find and its related citation information has a permanent home. Yay! (That’s exciting because then if the journal tanks or changes its name or website, you still have a way to find the necessary citation information without a wild goose chase.)

Of course, the DOI system has not existed for all time. Older articles will likely not have DOIs assigned retroactively, so you should not expect an article to always have a DOI.

Most of the time, publishers assign DOI numbers to scholarly articles at the time of publication.

Should you for some reason desire  more technical information, the International Organization for Standardization developed the system. You can read more here (preferably with a large cup of coffee).

How do I know if the article I’m reading has a DOI? Wait, what if I have a DOI but no citation?! Ahhhh…..


Fear not, there’s one handy tool to help answer all of these questions: CrossRef. As expressed in their mission statement, “Crossref’s specific mandate is to be the citation linking backbone for all scholarly information in electronic form.” They are a non-profit community trying to create a space which helps expedite the research process by making it easier to look up/confirm/etc. information.  You can think of them as a space that does not store full-text papers, but that stores all of the metadata about those papers. While they technically do not have everything, their database does included some 76 million records, making it a great tool for any researcher.

So let’s say you read an article and are going to cite it (APA Style) in a paper.  If it has a DOI, APA wants you to include it in your citation. What if you are unsure?  Head on over to Copy and paste the full article title (or author, or full citation) into the search box like so:

Screenshot of crossref search.

Click image to enlarge.


The results page will show you matches ranked by relevance.  This search found a match and displayed the DOI number.  Notice that you can also click on the ‘actions’ link if you want to generate a citation for the work:

Crossref results page.

Click image to enlarge.

Of course, this system works in reverse as well.  What if someone provided you a short-hand list of references which is really just a list of DOIs? Grumble a little, then plug the DOIs into Crossref to find the full citation information:

Crossref DOI search.

Click image to enlarge.


And Voila:

Crossref DOI search result.

Click image to enlarge.

APA Style….

Yes, yes, the APA manual advises that you include DOI numbers (in the form of a web address) whenever they exist. While this can feel tedious, there are tools to help! In addition to CrossRef, the APA Style Blog created a great post explaining how and when to include DOIs in your citations:  At the bottom of the post, you will find links out to some additional information about DOIs.

And that concludes this introduction to DOIs. Feel free to contact the library with any questions.  Happy searching (and finding)!

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