Part of being a successful researcher lies in the ability to stand out from your peers, which can be done through making and being acknowledge for valuable and original contributions. Once acknowledged for one discovery this can then act as a springboard to allow your peers to identify your other scholarly contributions, or alternatively identify potential for future collaboration, or be used as a proof of your research skills when applying for further funding. In short, making your work and accomplishments known is crucial to success in academia.
Yet whilst so many functions of the academic process hang on the concept of citations and as such the ability to identify the researchers behind a piece of work, the actual means of identifying a researcher is not without its problems. For example how to identify the discoveries and related work of a specific "John Smith" after coming across one of the author's particularly informative publications? How do we keep up to date with a researcher's publications if they change their name? How do we keep track of a successful researcher who works across a number of institutions over the course of their career or who engages in work across a range of disciplines?
Thus arises a demand for researchers to be uniquely identifiable through the course of their careers, no matter what changes within their personal or professional lives. Perhaps the most popular solution to this problem is the Open Researcher and Contributor ID, otherwise known as ORCID. An ORCID is a 16 digit, persistent digital identifier that identifies a researcher and it is remarkably simple to acquire one: simply go along to the website at http://orcid.org/ and provide your name and email address. This identifier can then be attached to all of your various scholarly works from publications or datasets (and anything else in-between and beyond!) to firmly identify you as a contributor to the work in question. And by using the notion of contributor ORCIDs have the flexibility to allow for numerous different roles in a work to be recorded, thus greatly increasing the scope of works a researcher can affiliate themselves with. Once a researcher has a unique identifier, the problems describe above are resolved and it becomes almost trivial to follow a researchers progress throughout the course of their career which in turn makes it much easier for them to showcase their accomplishments.
However, once a system of uniquely identifying researchers is embedded within the research ecosystem, a number of uses begin to emerge that extend the benefits beyond resolving the aforementioned issues, benefits that are enabled by the manner in which ORCID operates. ORCID itself is a non-profit organisation and thus it can offer an ORCID as a neutral identifier that allows different institutions' or publisher's own proprietary systems to interface with one another. As a result, different systems storing information about researchers can begin to build a much more comprehensive record of the research landscape, allowing them to consistently identify researchers who may not even have an identifier within the system in question.
This feature of ORCID is perhaps best highlighted in ORCID's very own profile pages available at http://orcid.org/ which presents users with a CV-like interface, providing a record of a researcher's education, employment, funding and works. One way in which to add a work to your ORCID profile is to import it from another site and in doing so it is possible to register your ORCID with the external organisation. For example, when I imported a paper from Scopus using my ORCID I came across another paper I had been listed as co-author on which I didn't realise was online. By using the ORCID profile system in this way, it is therefore possible to build a single, consistent (and perhaps more comprehensive that one would initially image) record of one's research outcomes.
Whilst the ORCID.org profiles are a useful feature that provide an overview of your research, they are ultimately a distraction from ORCID's power in it's ability to bring in all research contributions from a wide range of sources. When ORCID is combined with identifiers for other resources such as papers (identified by DOI's for example) and grants, the potential exists to illustrate a very informative and flexible image of a researcher's true impact in their community, that could be queried for a range of different purposes by different stakeholders. For example a researcher could use this dataset when applying for research grants, or a university may use it to demonstrate outreach work their academics have taken part in.
The potential of ORCID is one that has many parallels with the potential of open linked data, but to properly achieve such benefits requires both a lot of work in developing tools that allow different systems to expose their data and to talk to one another, but also a high level of ORCID adoption. At the time of writing, ORCID claim to have 1,523,480 registered users, and this number is only likely to increase: ORCID is supported by a wide array of member organisations including the University of Southampton, many of which are actively encouraging people to sign up for ORCIDs and some research councils are considering mandating researchers have an ORCID as a condition on rewarding grants.
It becomes clear then that ORCIDs are a potentially useful and powerful tool for the academic community. Having been devised to tackle some important, but perhaps unexciting issues facing around the way in which we disseminate research, all new opportunities arise that illustrate a potential to revolutionise the way in which we communicate our contributions. And whilst much of this potential is still yet to be realised, through increased adoption of ORCIDs and a better understanding of the role of good software in research, it is perhaps only a matter of time before everyone has their own ORCID.