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Abstract

Identifiers — such as personal identification numbers, student numbers, and license numbers — are used for identifying individual objects and constitute an important part of the information infrastructures of organizations and society. The design, choice, assignment, withdrawal, and replacement of identifiers are significant economic and political issues with more profound consequences than are perhaps commonly perceived. Use of identifiers can result in significant costs because they may include descriptive information, because an inappropriate identifier may be chosen for the object in question, or because there may be a lack of institutional control of the identifier. The objective of this paper is to elaborate on these problems by explaining the identifier construct from a technical, institutional, ontological, and information infrastructural perspective. Based on this understanding, we provide guidelines for how identifiers should be designed, chosen, replaced, and controlled. Accordingly, we address the practical need for improved design principles relating to the increasingly important infrastructural character of computerized information systems that stems from the importance of appropriate identifiers for information infrastructures and society as a whole. In order to understand the role, function, and meaning of identifiers, it is important to acknowledge that the identifier is fundamentally a linguistic construct used when referring to socially constructed institutional objects. Institutional objects are symbolic entities that represent institutional and brute facts, which are the results of human actions.

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