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REVISING Z39.18-1995:

March 30, 2000


The all-day workshop held on March 30 at Fort Belvoir, VA, attracted forty attendees to discuss the future direction of ANSI/NISO Z39.18-1995, Scientific and Technical Reports. Sponsored by the Defense Technical Information Center and NISO, the workshop initiated a preliminary review of NISO’s most widely used standard in preparation for the formal revision process. Kurt Molholm, Administrator of DTIC. opened the workshop with an overview of the history of scientific and technical reports, pointing out that the actual definition of a "sci/tech report" continues to evolve in light of advances in information technology, and the issues involved in managing information in a digital environment are increasingly complex. Patricia Harris, Executive Director of NISO, explained the work of NISO and standards-development activities in general and the future of Z39.18 in specific, calling for full participation of all potential users — authors, producers, distributors, and end-users — in the upcoming revision cycle.

Keynote speaker, Rebecca Barclay, President of Knowledge Management Associates, described the activities that culminated in publication of the version of Z39.18 currently in use and discussed changes in the world of sci/tech reports. Noting the scope of the revision process to deal with digital and print environments, Barclay emphasized the importance of deciding what information should be provided in a report and how it should be organized, classified, and stored not only to meet the needs of users but also to ensure its reusability. A brief comparison of Z39.18-1995 to the proposed ISO draft standard (CD 5966:1999) showed many points of agreement but led to the conclusion that ISO draft is more prescriptive than the NISO approach and is potentially limited in its usefulness.

Overview of the Issues

Creating and providing reports in digital format raises a variety of issues, not the least of which is the concept of the sci/tech report as a dynamic document and what constitutes the "official" version of such a report. Other issues include the compatibility and interoperability of various file formats (e.g., has PDF become the norm?); the application of metadata to improve search, retrieval, and delivery; and the use of hyperlinked information and the responsibility for maintenance of hyperlinks within reports. In concluding the keynote, Barclay also discussed the value of XML (eXtensible Markup Language) to help address some of these issues.

Two sets of three breakout sessions gave attendees an opportunity to discuss issues in detail, raise questions, and contribute to a final discussion at the conclusion of the workshop. To help workshop participants understand the various points to consider in the discussion of digital format issues, attendees viewed examples of actual items received by DTIC for cataloging. The items contained embedded media objects and/or multiple software file formats provided as sections of an extant report. The breakout sessions addressed the following questions:

  • Should NISO publish one or two standards for sci/tech reports? A single standard would, of necessity, combine all descriptive information about print-based and digital versions of reports. Would two standards be more effective — one an update of the existing standard for print-based reports and the second an entirely new standard that addresses digital versions?
  • Can/Should the concept of a digital sci/tech report be standardized to facilitate ingest, storage, and retrieval for secondary dissemination and archiving?
  • Should the revised standard recommend the use of a specific form of structured information to avoid information obsolescence (e.g., the use of XML)?

Break-out Discussions and Findings

Considerable overlap in many of the issues led to consensus on numerous points of discussion, as well as some surprising recommendations in response to the changing nature of reports and the needs of report users. It was agreed that NISO must design a sci/tech report standard that will be flexible enough to meet the demands of an inevitably digital future. Thus, any revision should avoid too much specificity and remain descriptive rather than prescriptive. The definition of the scientific and technical report should also be re-examined in light of changing needs. Today many reports are published and delivered in PDF format using Web-browser-based technology on a desktop or laptop computer. Inevitably different viewers will also be used to access reports, for example, PDAs and other wireless devices. For report users who frequently seek data sets or specific information in a problem-solution context, a digital version of the complete, traditional print-based report might not be the optimal delivery vehicle.

In the future, report users may demand a "tech-lite" version that could be assembled on the fly, based on user-specified parameters for data and information and a variety of technology constraints. If data sets, rather than full reports, are required, a revised Z39.18 should also address the question of what data are important for archiving, how the data should be maintained to avoid obsolescence, who should assume responsibility for ensuring the longevity and continuity of data (for example, report producer or cataloger), and how legacy data and obsolete file formats should be handled. A complete "archive" version of a report should also be produced, cataloged, and stored, however, with the caveat that it may contain file formats that might not survive, and the report producer should identify the types of files and file structures and sizes contained therein. In general, XML appears to offer considerable promise in addressing a number of these issues, so it was agreed that the use of XML be investigated for inclusion in any revision of the standard.

Whatever the revised Z39.18 may be, workshop attendees agreed that the standard should contain multiple examples of "best practices" to follow. The attendees also agreed that the seven-year cycle for use-review-revision of this particular standard is too long, given the increasing speed of technological change. Therefore, establishing methods and processes for dynamically updating Z39.18 as necessary should be given serious consideration. In remarks at the conclusion of the workshop, NISO Executive Director Pat Harris affirmed the need for a shorter review period and championed the development of a dynamic online version to complement a print-based standard. Harris also called for greater participation from the academic, publishing, and business communities to complement the efforts of the participants from the public sector. Harris closed by pointing out that participation in the standards development process offers the opportunity to play a leading role in determining how information should be delivered and maintained in our increasingly Web-enabled environment.

Next Steps

The NISO Standards Committee to coordinate the revision of Z39.18-1995 is now being put in place. It is expected that the committee will be appointed by September 2000.