Those innovative folks over at Nature Publishing Group have just launched Nature Precedings a free online service that enables researchers to share, discuss and cite their early findings prior to publication.
It's that last part that interests me the most. Nature say that "most items published in Nature Precedings are assigned a DOI name (Digital Object Identifier)". The DOI name is a persistent, unique identifier that allows any object to be located online. In practice this means that links can be embedded in published documents without fear that someday they may lead nowhere.
This is how it works. A DOI name is assigned to an object (for example a document on Nature Precedings) and registered. The metadata associated with that object (for example the location) is registered along with the DOI name. Thereafter that object may be located on the web by using a URL of the form http://dx.doi.org/[DOI name]. If (say) the location changes for any reason the metadata is updated but the identifier and the dx.doi.org URL remain unchanged. DOI names use an implementation of the CNRI Handle System.
The syntax for the DOI name is prefix/suffix. All DOI names start with "10." (This distinguishes a DOI name from any other implementation of the Handle System). The suffix can be any unique identifier. Thus the DOI name provides interoperability between different systems of unique document identifiers. Here's an example of a DOI name doi:10.1000/186. Whatever identifier is used in the suffix the DOI name will resolve to the document (assuming the metadata has been properly registered. There are a number of Registration Agencies that provide this service to those wishing to register DOI names.
To date around 28 million DOI names have been registered, most of which refer to objects in the STM publishing world. Nature's choice to assign DOI names means that the more informal Precedings documents will immediately become part of the formal body of interlinked scientific technical and medical literature.
The DOI System is managed by the International DOI Foundation (IDF). This is an open membership consortium that was formed in 1998. It is a registered not-for-profit organization. I am the current Chair of the IDF. Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.