Why do DOIs make things citable

I’ve noted in the past some of the strange beliefs about DOIs [1]. One of these is that DOIs provide some magic archiving capability [2]. The other is the strange one that “DOIs make things citable”. This was one of the selling points for Figshare, for instance.

I’m interested to see that now GitHub have now joined the party [3], and again using the justification that “DOIs make things citable”. I am lost in attempting to understand this.

First, GitHub have stable URIs for repositories. It’s in their business interests to keep these and if they change them they will break every single repository that has checked things out using the URI.

Second, if I have a github URI I actually know that I have a link to a repository, and it is fairly clear that I can clone from this repository. With a DOIs I do not. Paper, datacite item, git repo, it is not possible to tell.

Third, with a github URI I have a URI that I compare against other URIs and work out whether it is the same or different. If I have a DOI, I now have two identifiers, the DOI and the URI both of which identify the same thing. Surely, this makes the situation worse, and not better.

Am I being a little cynical in wondering why some publishers require them? Do they, perhaps have a vested interest in making things more invouluted and not just using standard web technology [4]?

It seems to me like a clear case of DOIs are magical fairy dust. We sprinkle them on a github repository and now it is better, when actually we have made the situation worse.

The only justification that we have is “DOIs make it citable”. Is there a better one? Answers on a post-card please.


I totally missed a post by Carl Boettiger which makes some of the same points [5].

On the general issue of metadata, a DOI will give some harvestable metadata from the DOI, although Greycite can give much of the same metadata direct from GitHub (see for instance here). Having GitHub fix their metadata would seem to me to have been an easier win. And, of course, github URIs can be used to clone from and extract all the repository metadata using, well, git.


  1. P. Lord, and S. Cockell, "The Problem with DOIs", An Exercise in Irrelevance, 2011. http://www.russet.org.uk/blog/1849
  2. P. Lord, "Archiving of Scientific Material", An Exercise in Irrelevance, 2013. http://www.russet.org.uk/blog/2360
  3. "Improving GitHub for science", GitHub, 2014. http://github.com/blog/1840-improving-github-for-science
  4. P. Lord, "Why academic publishing is like a coffee shop", An Exercise in Irrelevance, 2012. http://www.russet.org.uk/blog/2248
  5. C. Boettiger, "DOI != citable", Lab Notebook, 2013. http://www.carlboettiger.info/2013/06/03/DOI-citable.html