The OSIS Website
"A Common Format for Many Visions"



OSIS Frequently Asked Questions


Table Of Contents

The Basics

The Benefits

The Details


The Basics

1.      Why does the issue of digital Bible standards have so much urgency?

Once a technology is well understood, rapid development and adoption of standards is important because it vastly reduces the costs of advancement in the field. One very clear example is the US choice of Imperial vs. Metric measurements. The US signed the Treaty of the Meter in 1875, but even this was too late: so much technology was built in the old ways, that Congress felt it too expensive to change over completely; because of this we have 2 systems for everything today. With computers, standardization if even more important because there is often no easy conversion from one standard to another, such as multiplying liters to get gallons. The longer each Bible software vendor, translator, and publisher uses a different format, the harder it is to build simple, interoperable software, and documents that do not die with the particular program they were published in.

2.      What Is OSIS?

The Open Scripture Information Standard (OSIS) is an XML schema for marking up scripture and related text, part of an "open scripture" initiative composed of translators, publishers, scholars, software manufacturers, and technical experts who are coordinated by the Bible Technologies Group. The group formed out of an informal meeting at a technology conference in 2000 where key players from the American Bible Society, SIL International, and the Society of Biblical Literature connected and began to share about the need for a common digital format for the Bible. OSIS is the first project to come out of the Bible Technologies Group.

The purpose of the OSIS initiative is to research, identify, and develop the organizational, process, and technical basis that will produce markup standards for biblical and related texts. This is critical so that we can have interoperability across natural language boundaries and computer hardware and software for publication, linking, reference, and accessibility. The goal is to provide open standards for the use and benefit of publishers, software manufacturers, Bible Societies, scholars, and anyone else interested in biblical and related texts. When carried to fruition, OSIS will facilitate easy storage and retrieval, indexing and cross-referencing of raw text, and the rendering of scripture and related text into many formats, including worldwide web, printed materials, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), cell phones, etc.

Since the idea was born there have been three major meetings in Virginia-USA, Colorado-USA, and Rome-Italy that have moved the standards process forward. At the beginning of the process, the Bible Technology Group selected two key people to help lead their effort. Steve DeRose Ph.D., Bible Technology Group Chair and Kees De Blois, UBS, as the Vice Chair provide overall direction of the many strategic and technical aspects involved in assisting the Bible community in creating a standard that will free the Bible texts from the formats that render them.

3.      Why was XML chosen to be the foundation of the OSIS standard?

XML has several important virtues. First, it allows describing the structure of documents, not just how they are to be formatted. Because of this, documents in XML can be used for much more than page production. Exactly the same files can directly feed Web delivery, production in multiple formats (Braille, print, audio, large-print, e-books, and so on), and even non-reading formats such as indexing, automated linguistic analysis, and so on. Second, XML has achieved a breadth and depth of adoption never before seen for any document format. Its predecessor SGML quickly became the format of choice for very large scale projects, in the 1980s: aircraft and other technical manuals, legal, medical, and policy documents, as well as huge collections of literary and scholarly texts. But SGML had a high learning curve, and so did poorly for smaller-scale projects. XML is a tiny subset of SGML that is compatible, and yet far easier to learn, use, and implement. XML is especially appropriate for OSIS because it's design is ideal for long-term archival and access ¨C it does not depend on any particular software, and so even the demise of all current software would pose little problem for the accessibility and re-use of XML.

4.      In a nutshell, what do I tell my supervisor about OSIS that will help him/her grasp the importance?

OSIS is the standard way to interchange Bibles and theological texts: XML for Bibles. It is 100% XML conforming, so we can leverage the huge array of XML tools and products available, including offerings from all major vendors. Converting our publishing process to OSIS will require some up-front retraining and tools costs, but will progressively and massively simplify workflow and improve product quality over time. It will allow us to re-purpose our information products easily for Web, paper, and other media. This will also free us from being locked in to any specific software solution, giving us the agility to use best practices and best-of-breed tools as they change over time.

5.      Who makes decisions in the OSIS Initiative?

OSIS has so far proven to require little organizational overhead. OSIS technical work is done in Working Groups that are created by the Chair; each WG has its own chairperson, and interested persons are strongly encouraged to contact and join in the work of the WGs. The OSIS Core Working Group supervises and approves all OSIS technical work, and undertakes some projects on its own (including the OSIS Core schema, since it was the first work product). The Core WG includes the chairs of all other WGs and the OSIS officers; it invites additional technical experts as needed. The Core WG handles non-technical matters along with representatives from major supporting organizations.

6.      Where does the funding and support come for the OSIS Initiative?

Seed funding for OSIS has come primarily from the American Bible Society and the Society of Biblical Literature. The developers of the OSIS schema have worked as volunteers, sometimes with release time from their organizations and sometimes entirely on their own.

The Benefits

1.      How will standards change and help Bible translation in the field?

Translators now use a wide variety of incompatible computer tools: word processors, Bible study software, specialized editors, and so on. No one tool does all the different tasks well and so translators must either do some tasks with poor tools, or move their work from one program's format to another repeatedly. Each such move can introduce errors, and some require great manual effort and wasted time. When a wide variety of tools speak the same language, translators can use whatever tools work best for their current task, without the cost, time, risk, and technical headache of repeated data conversion. Also, translation organizations will be able to spend far less money on writing and maintaining data convertors, teaching multiple formats, and rescuing ancient data that can only be read by programs that no longer exist.

This is the same basic benefit that caused standards to drive the industrial revolution in the western world. When everyone can agree on standard measurement units, it becomes possible to farm out parts of jobs: one worker can specialize in making one component, while several others compete for making another component. Anyone who needs both components for their work, can choose by price, quality, speed, or any other concern, while remaining assured that the parts will fit together properly.

2.      How will standards change and help Bible publishing around the world?

In much the same way that standardization helps authors and translators, it greases the skids for publishers. The final conversion of author's files into typeset pages is fraught with error. Some publishers accept a few word processor formats (most of which are almost useless for earlier important translation tasks) and some simply re-key everything from scratch. Errors creep in, raising the costs of proofreading and correction (especially in less common languages), and raising the risks of substantial errors in the final product.

3.      How will OSIS benefit the people who will read these Bible texts on a daily basis?

The reader will have more and more control over the presentation of Bible content. They will be able to select the medium in which it is delivered and other aspects that make the product meaningful to them. All this will be done while still giving publishers the ability to safeguard Bible content and monitor how it is being used.

Readers will benefit indirectly as well. Because the introduction of errors at every stage of translation and production can be reduced, the final translations and editions people read should be of higher quality. Readers will, copyright permitting, also be able to use the same texts with multiple formats and software products, rather than having to read all of one publisher's books in one program, all of another's in a different one, and so on. This motivates Bible software vendors to do a better job. With data standards in place, you can change software without re-purchasing your entire theological library every time. Vendors who can excel in any dimension thus stand to gain. If you have the best features, or the lowest price, you will attract users who want what you offer. Vendors who lack any excellence will be less likely to cause harm, since inferior products can be more easily ignored.

Slightly further in the future, we expect to see annotation communities develop. Having a single standard reference system makes it feasible to build software that lets people all over the world study and discuss Scripture together. They will be able to attach notes and comments to passages, ask question, exchange thoughts and prayers, and help each other in many ways.

4.      How can OSIS help me to better partner with other organizations and work on joint initiatives?

Partnering around texts generally involves passing the texts around a lot. Details such as reducing the cost, time, and risk of transfer saves money and improve quality. The more partners involved, or the more cycling between partners, the faster these benefits accrue. As OSIS become the expected lingua franca for exchange of Bibles and related documents, it will disappear into the background, and interchange will ¡°just work, much as HTML, credit cards, 2x4s, yardsticks, and light bulbs just work.

5.      Are there any cost savings that will come out of my adoption of OSIS?

Judging from the experience of publishers in other fields that have adopted genre-specific XML solutions, savings come in many kinds, and many sizes:

  • Training costs go down with time, because XML is widely known and has many ready-made training materials available   
  • Programming costs for data conversion gradually disappear; such costs are seldom broken out in project budgets, but are often substantial nonetheless   
  • Proofreading and re-keying costs will drop, because fewer errors will be introduced in process   
  • The costs of publishing to multiple media will drop radically. Related costs such as support problems due to Web and paper version being out of sync, will also drop rapidly if the transition is managed well.   
  • Writer productivity can be expected to rise slightly because there will be fewer conflicts over learning new tools. Since many tools support XML, writers can be given more voice in choosing their favorite tools, improving morale and productivity   
  • Software costs may decrease, since many open-source tools support XML, and your organization need not be locked in to any particular vendor. If the vendor raises prices more than their quality or service justifies, you can move to a more cost-effective solution.   
  • The ease of production from XML source makes it more feasible to reduce print runs, reduce warehousing costs, and even to undertake print-on-demand where appropriate. Additional revenue may be gained from short-run publications that would not be cost-effective without XML and OSIS. For example, producing diglot Swahili/French Bibles can be feasible with an XML production workflow.   
  • In the long term, costs of recovering or re-keying backlist publications virtually disappear.

6.      Does OSIS offer advantages as I try to get my Biblical texts online?

OSIS offers great advantages in this area. As described above, keeping your documents in a standard base format such as OSIS, makes it easy to convert out to various delivery formats; HTML is one such delivery format. OSIS can be converted to HTML with very simple XSLT scripts. Alternatively, most browsers now support at least rudimentary display of generic XML, and so you can deliver OSIS document unchanged to current browsers, adding only a CSS stylesheet to define formatting.

7.      What other formats will OSIS help me deliver my texts in?

Some formats include PostScript, PDF, Open eBook, Braille, Palm, and HTML. Because OSIS is a descriptive, high-content format, converting to most other formats is easy. In effect it is a downhill conversion. Going the other way is much harder, which is another reason to author in XML.

The Details

1.      If I had to pick one thing to do first in the process of adopting OSIS, what would it be?

Find the place where OSIS can make the clearest difference in your own particular publishing and production structure, and get buy-in from the people who will be affected by it there. Provide them with the right tools and incentives, and watch OSIS and XML spread from there. Cultivate an interest in making your documents accessible in as many forms, for as long as possible; that's what XML is best at, and what saves your organization the most money in the long run.

2.      What is involved in converting my Biblical texts into the OSIS format?

The task may be nearly trivial, or very far from trivial, depending on what you are converting from. At one extreme, tagged formats such as ThML, XSEM, SFM, LGM and the like can often be converted with small to moderate sized Perl or XSLT scripts. Hundreds of documents have been converted in this way, and OSIS intends to make tools available on a free, as-is basis to assist in such conversions. Word-processor files are more difficult, because in practice they seldom use styles consistently; however, there are numerous tools to assist in word-processor to XML conversion. Files in obsolete or undocumented formats pose the same problems they would regardless of what you might choose to convert them to.

3.      Can I begin creating documents with OSIS right now? If so, how would I start?

Yes. The first step is to learn the basics of XML and/or some XML authoring tools; this is a fairly small task for anyone who can create HTML Web pages already. Any generic XML authoring tool can be set up to handle OSIS documents. 

The second step is to learn the OSIS schema.  The OSIS schema defines what elements can occur (such as verses, quotations, paragraphs, poetry lines, and so on), and where. It also defines a standard form for Bible references: a single set of book-name abbreviations, and a standard way of punctuating references, such as Matt.1.1. These methods are similar to conventions we all use on paper, but the rules are stricter in order to avoid ambiguity and other conflicts. It may be important to note that OSIS does not dictate how references or other things should be displayed, just how programs exchange them under the covers.

4.      Does OSIS endanger the rights that are associated with my Bible text?

No. OSIS can be used along with any digital rights management (DRM) system. All current DRMs deal with XML, and OSIS is XML. The Open eBook Consortium uses a very similar XML-based format, and its members are very concerned and active in the digital rights management area. OSIS itself does not define standards for digital rights. This is because we have so far discovered no requirements in this one specific area that are unique to Bible publishers as compared to other publishers. Also, OSIS cannot possibly match the level of effort and expertise already being devoted to DRM issues elsewhere. Should DRM issues unique to Bible publishing arise, OSIS could certainly consider taking on work in that area.

5.      How will OSIS interact with Standard Format Markers (SFM), and other existing ways of marking up text?

Conceptually, SFM and OSIS are quite similar; both focus on marking parts of the text primarily for what they are, rather than how they may happen to appear in some particular edition. Thus, SFM texts are fairly easy to convert to and from OSIS, and SFM users should be able to gain benefit from OSIS quickly. 

OSIS has some potential advantages over SFM. By virtue of being XML, OSIS texts can be used with a wide and fast-growing range of software tools. OSIS also has a more robust way of encoding nested structures, from lists to poems to genealogies. Also, OSIS has no variant forms; whereas historically many variations on SFM have arisen (there is work underway to normalize this situation for SFM). And finally, OSIS has a formal definition expressed in the XML Schema language, so computers can confirm systematically whether a document does or does not follow the specification.

6.      How does OSIS help me with font and language complexities?

Because OSIS uses XML, it also uses Unicode. Unicode is an international standard character set that provides all the characters needed for a wide variety of languages. For most translation and publication projects, Unicode will already have all the characters needed, or be able to construct them with floating diacritics. 

Some languages are not fully supported by Unicode, however; in such cases it is necessary to use private use Unicode extensions, which will require some system configuration. So while Unicode does not totally solve these issues, it solves them for many languages, and provides a standard solution that works across all platforms and all XML software.

7.      Does OSIS help me more efficiently get my materials from the design stage to press?

Yes, that type of transition is what OSIS is best at, and includes similar transitions from design to production in other media as well. Of course, if no part of your workflow is yet XML-based, there will be some cost of transition. However, with the fast growth in XML support across domains, the time to recover such a conversion investment is short and growing shorter. This is due to better, cheaper, faster, and cleaner software at all stages of the publication workflow.

8.      How can I participate in this global effort?

  • Decide to make OSIS XML the fundamental archival and interchange format for your organization. This does not mean giving up other formats such as PostScript, PDF, or Quark where they make sense; but making OSIS the normative form in which you keep information for future use. Perhaps paradoxically, this will reduce the costs of producing the other formats   
  • Help develop OSIS-specific tools: convertors to get existing data into OSIS; tools for editing and searching OSIS documents; stylesheets to convert OSIS texts into key output formats; training materials for new users; new texts in OSIS   
  • Support the several major text archives and other projects that are using OSIS   
  • Tell all relevant software vendors that you want them to support OSIS   
  • Ask your partners to consider using OSIS as a more effective way to work together

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