Data models for Digital Editions: Complex XML versus Graph structures

  1. 1. Daniel Bruder

    University of Cambridge

  2. 2. Simone Teufel

    University of Cambridge

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In terms of longevity and collation of textual data in the humanities, digital data, notwithstanding its potential, still falls short the qualities of the traditionally printed book.
To streamline the diverse and idiosyncratic Digital Editions of the time and to establish a cross- and re-usable, durable digital archive of textual cultural artifacts, in 1988 the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) was established with the goal to present a commonly shared standard for the transcription of literary, scientific and other forms of text.
As data model, the extensible markup language XML was chosen to assure longevity and exchangeability of the data. However, it turns out that XML, and with it, the data model of the hierarchically ordered tree are questionable choices for the recording of complex texts – as they are commonly found in the humanities – by potentially rendering the data ambiguous on semantic level.
The abstract idea behind the commonly shared tag set for the description of textual data is reflected in the
TEI abstract model (TEI Consortium 2016b) which uses XML as a serialisation format – but to which it is not bound:

The rules and recommendations made in these Guidelines are expressed in terms of what is currently the most widely-used markup language for digital resources of all kinds: the Extensible Markup Language (XML) […]. However, the TEI encoding scheme itself does not depend on this language […], and may in future years be re-expressed in other ways as the field of markup develops and matures.
In the following, fundamental limitations of the tree data model are highlighted in spotlight fashion and contrasted with a graph based model for the sustainable recording and long-term archiving of complex textual data.

Limitations of the tree model
Paradoxically, Digital Editions as well as digital archives, tools, platforms and data repositories are not as interoperable in practice as one would theoretically expect from standardised sources. To be able to cross- or re-use data or tools between projects, in practice, serious refactoring and rededication is necessary – e.g. existing web platforms cannot readily be re-used by another project, notwithstanding the fact that the data repositories are fully validating, validating TEI-P5 sources. How is this possible?
As will be shown, this paradoxical situation of factually unattainable interoperability of editions and tools are a direct consequence of the choice of data model.
The decision towards XML and the tree data model is based on the OHCO assumption of text as an Ordered Hierarchy of Content Objects (DeRose et al. (1990); revised in Renear, Mylonas, and Durand (1993)). Contrasting the original goals (TEI Consortium 2016c) of interoperable long-term archivable data repositories with the status quo, this decision towards XML as the serialisation format needs to be critically questioned – particularly since the TEI Guidelines themselves very early on make clear that the assumption of data model behind XML is an improper simplification (TEI Consortium 2016a):
Surprisingly perhaps, this grossly simplified view of what text is […] turns out to be very effective for a large number of purposes. It is not, however, adequate for the full complexity of real textual structures, for which more complex mechanisms need to be employed.
Already two most basic constellations can lead to a necessary departure from the tree paradigm which could be described as ‘Complex XML’.
These situations are commonly resolved by using workarounds (TEI Consortium 2016d). Although
syntactically permissible on the level of XML markup, these workarounds establish structures beyond the data model of the tree and can lead to misrepresentation of the data on
semantic, modelling level, seriously harming effective re-use and long-term archiving.

Data as well as tools inevitably become idiosyncratic, i.e. they irrevocably need to be handled on individual, project-specific basis; projects increasingly develop ‘private dialects’ and couple philologists and data scientists for actually accessing the data; data and tools are inaccessible to cross- and re-use between projects; finally, the possibility of a common digital archive is lost beyond recall.

Complex textual structures demand additional annotation to help and guide downstream tooling to not misrepresent the data. The transcription – in spite of valid, conforming data w.r.t. to the XML Schema – cannot automatically, i.e. without human intervention, be unambiguously resolved into its textual variants.
The necessary supplementary annotation to one-unambiguously describe and model the source sets in motion a vicious circle of exponentially growing complexity in the data. Project-specific, idiosyncratic tools become necessary and must match this complexity. Moreover, such repositories typically suffer from overtagging (Hanrahan 2015), or, in the worst case need to be abandoned entirely (Schmidt et al. 2006).

Any further annotation or commentary only ever increases the complexity: any further annotation must match the existing complexity of the amended tree structure to accordingly be integrated; data and tools suffer from a ‘Heisenberg-Effect’ in that any further, more precise description of the source makes the data only ever more imprecise.

Complex XML
In contrast to a simple edition, i.e. one of linear text without any further annotation, the need for ‘Complex XML’, on most fundamental, level arises through:

the edition of a non-linear text
the edition of a linear text, open for annotation

In essence, anything that is beyond linear text free of annotation cannot adequately be represented by a mono-hierarchical tree model and will need “more complex mechanisms” (TEI Consortium 2016a).

Complex XML through non-linear text
Non-linear text results from editorial operations such as insertions, deletions, substitutions. For instance, recording the genealogical writing process of two undecided variants within the same sentence, yields four different, non-linear potential readings.

These four different readings derived from mechanical re-combination potentially are not intended and to be reduced to specific readings only.

Constraining these combinatorial permutations cannot be done in general ways within the mono-hierarchical tree data model. The tree model exposes a general limitation – even without the prevalence of overlapping structures.

While interconnecting nodes across the tree’s boundaries by (ab-)using attributes is syntactically possible it nevertheless makes the data idiosyncratic on semantic level, i.e. project-specific rules are introduced and must individually be followed when working with the data.

These interconnections to constrain the combinatorics to specific readings cannot formally be made part of the tree structure itself. To build a tree, any node in the tree must have exactly one parent. A different data model and data structure is necessary to model more than one parent for one node, namely the data model of the graph.

Complex XML through meta-data
Complex XML can also result from linear text, open for annotation. The following schematic example shows a linear text with overlapping annotation:

Corresponding serialisation using XML and the segmentation method (TEI Consortium 2016d):

The necessary interconnection and recombination of fragmented nodes cannot be modelled within the tree structure in general ways:

Another representation shows how one node in the tree is made the child of two parents:

The relationship between graphs and trees
Trees and graphs are closely related: An ordered tree is a special form of graph with the properties of
a) it is a directed graph without cycles,
b) has one designated root node and
c) any node has exactly one parent node.

As was shown in the previous basic examples, there is strictly no possibility to interconnect nodes of the tree across branches of the tree. By trying to associate two parents to one node, the tree paradigm is effectively abandoned, and results in a permanent need for case-specific handling to resolve potential ambiguities in the data.

Digital Editions wanting to model more than just simple structures can – notwithstanding the syntactical possibilities of XML – not be represented in interoperable ways within the paradigm of the tree data model, making longevity and uniformly re-usable digital archives impossible.
Alternative, graph-theoretic attempts to solve this problem have been suggested and could implement the
TEI abstract model through an adequate data structure (Huitfeldt 1994; Barnard et al. 1995; Sperberg-McQueen and Huitfeldt 2000; Huitfeldt and Sperberg-McQueen 2001; Durusau and O'Donnell 2002; Tennison and Piez 2002; Dipper 2005; Dekhtyar and Iacob 2005; Banski and Przepiórkowski 2009; Di Iorio, Peroni, and Vitali 2010; Di Iorio, Peroni, and Vitali 2011; Schmidt and Colomb 2009; Schmidt 2014; Götze and Dipper 2006; Peroni, Vitali, and Di Iorio 2009; Witt 2007; Kuczera 2016).

Yet, the question of an adequate serialisation and exchange format to any such data structure remains open. To be able to give guarantees of long term storage and archiving, any such serialisation format must be able to one-unambiguously represent the source as well as data structure. Ideally, any such serialisation format should be both machine readable as well as human intelligible and independent of existing computer hardware and software.
Previous graph-based approaches for the recording of complex textual data either did not catch on or have been abandoned for reasons of complexity in implementation or usage.
Because of the choice of data model, current repositories are idiosyncratic and tools and data must be handled on individual basis. In order to be able to build general digital archives fully interoperable data repositories are necessary. Interoperability is closely connected to the choice of data model. The TEI abstract model should be implemented as a graph structure, however, the graph structure is in need of a suitable exchange and serialisation format.
The commonly shared property between former graph-based approaches is the use of embedded markup. It is conjectured that future research on suitable serialisation formats for graph-based approaches should re-evaluate standoff based markup for the durable recording of Digital Editions.


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Conference Info

In review

DHd - 2018
"Kritik der digitalen vernunft"

Cologne, Germany

Feb. 26, 2018 - March 2, 2018

160 works by 418 authors indexed

Conference website:

Contributors: Patrick Helling, Harald Lordick, R. Borges, & Scott Weingart.

Series: DHd (5)

Organizers: DHd