What is This Thing?

It does not make sense to have a string without knowing what encoding it uses [Spolsky2003].

Media Type Metadata

In DataONE content may be transferred multiple times between multiple locations, and each transfer must result in an accurate representation of the original content. DataONE achieves this by transferring byte copies of content between clients and servers using the HTTP protocol, and verifying that the checksum computed by the origin matches that retrieved. Hence the bytes are accurately transferred and can be reliably transferred again by the consumer.

In order to properly interpret how to use the object, the consumer must know the media type of the object. The media type (formerly the MIME or Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions Type) is metadata about an object that can be used by the consumer to determine what the object is. The IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority [IANA]) provides a controlled list of media types [IANA_MEDIA] (henceforth “IANA Media Types”) that are used during internet transfer of objects to inform the receiver of the type of object being transferred.

The media type can be determined several ways:

  • examine the bytes of the object

  • infer from the file name of the object

  • additional metadata provided by the object producer

The most reliable general solution is for the media type metadata to be provided by the object producer. This is especially important for ambiguous object types such as text documents since the character encoding can in many cases only be reliably determined by the application that created the document.

In some cases, the IANA Media Type by itself does not provide sufficient information for a consumer to reliably process an object. For example a text document with IANA Media Type of text/plain may have been created using any of hundreds of character sets [IANA_CHARS]. In these cases, an additional charset parameter is specified, and this information along with the IANA Media Type is required to properly interpret a text file.

DataONE expands on the metadata describing an object by recording additional information in Types.SystemMetadata that accompanies every object. Amongst this additional metadata is a formatId that, like the IANA Media Type, provides a pointer to additional information (a Types.ObjectFormat) about the object for the benefit of downstream consumers. The ObjectFormat structure is a controlled list of object classifications that augments the IANA Media Type to support use by analytical tools employed by researchers and other.

In this manner the combination of an object and it’s System Metadata provides the information necessary for a consumer to discern what the object is and so what applications might be used to ingest the object.

Preserving Media Type Metadata Between Systems

Once available, the media type metadata should be preserved with the object to ensure that downstream consumers can utilize the content in the same way without resorting to inference mechanisms with potentially different results. Hence it is essential that media type information is considered an integral part of the action of transferring an object between systems.

When a server sends an object to a user agent (e.g. a CN acting as a client retrieving a Science Metadata document from a MN, a script accessing content, or a browser viewing something from a CN), the server should specify the media type in the Content-Type field of the accompanying HTTP headers [RFC2616 Section 14.17]. The Content-Type entity-header field indicates the media type [IANA_MEDIA] (formerly known as “MIME Type” or “Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions Type”) of the entity-body sent to the recipient [RFC2616]. The media type entry of the Content-Type header is used to to inform the consumer of what the bytes in the payload represent.

The server may also include a suggested filename in the Content-Disposition HTTP header [RFC6266]. This can be useful for consumers as it specifies a filename that may be used by default for the content, and also provides a hint as to the type of content being provided (i.e. through the file name extension).

All content in DataONE is accompanied by System Metadata which is used to provide persistent information about the associated object that is useful for maintaining the object state and for consumers. Content type in DataONE is indicated in System Metadata by freference to an Types.Object Format, a complex structure that contains a formatId, a formatName and a formatType. In version 2.0 APIs, V2_0.Types.objectFormat is extended to include mimeType and extension.

The use of a controlled list of object formats may be problematic however, when considering that a particular type of object may have multiple media types (e.g. an Excel spreadsheet) or may require more detail such as character encoding information (e.g. a CSV or XML document) that may not be reliably inferred from the object bytes.

Hence, the system metadata for an object should also include optional properties for the media type specific to the object, the character encoding, and the filename. This information may be provided with the object System Metadata or in the Content-Type and Content-Disposition headers. Where the information in the headers conflicts with that in the System Metadata, the System Metadata should prevail (since presumably the system metadata was set correctly by the origin, whereas a misconfigured server may be setting an incorrect value).


  1. (no change) The objectFormat is used to indicate to a consumer application more detailed information than is available through the media type.

  2. The mimeType element of the Draft v2.0 API should be renamed “mediaType” and used to specify the default media type for an object should that information not be explicitly provided through the Content-Type header provided by the producer (Issue #)

  3. The media type as provided by the producer of the object should be specified and should be preserved as part of the system metadata so that the media type may be reliably presented to downstream consumers. When specified in the Content-Type header, the media type overrides the default value present in the associated objectFormat. When present in System Metadata, that value overrides a value presented in the ``Content-Type``header. In practice, System Metadata is retrieved separately from the object, and so such an override will optional for consumers.

  4. For text media sub-types, or content that is textual (e.g. media type = application/xml or application/javascript), a charset parameter should be provided in the Content-Type header. When provided, this value must be persisted in the system metadata associated with an object. When charset is specified in the System Metadata, it overrides a value that may be present in the Content-Type header. In practice, System Metadata is retrieved separately from the object, and so such an override will optional for consumers.

  5. A filename should be provided in a Content-Disposition header by a producer and should be preserved in the system metadata associated with the object. When present in the System Metadata, that value overrides a value in the Content-Disposition header. In practice, System Metadata is retrieved separately from the object, and so such an override will optional for consumers.

Setting Content-Type and Content-Disposition Headers

The purpose of the HTTP Content-Type header is to inform the receiver of a byte stream what the payload actually is. Parameters may be included with the Content-Type to provide additional information for the consumer (e.g. the charset parameter for text sub-types).

Version 1.x Content-Type

Media type tracking in Version 1.x is largely delegated to the ObjectFormat referenced in the SystemMetadata associated with an object. A content producer may provide a Content-Type header, but this information is not preserved as part of the DataONE infrastructure. Hence, consumers that intend to re-expose the object should endeavor to record the provided Content-Type and provide tha header when re-transmitting the object. Such an action is however, undefined within the Version 1.x DataONE service interfaces.

Lacking an explicltly set Content-Type, a Node may infer the Content-Type from the ObjectFormat

Version 2.0 Content-Type

  1. mediaType value is specified in SystemMetadata

    The SystemMetdata.mediaType value is used to set the Content-Type header value. The SystemMetadata.mediaType overrides a value that may be set in the referenced ObjectFormat.

  2. mediaType value not specified in SystemMetadata, available in ObjectFormat

  3. mediaType value not specified in SystemMetadata or ObjectFormat

Rules for Various Content Types



application/xml and text/xml are equivalent [RFC7303 Section 9.2].

The use of UTF-8, without a BOM, is RECOMMENDED for all XML MIME entities [RFC7303].

The document character set for XML is Unicode (ISO 10646), which means that XML processors should behave as if they used Unicode internally. However, that does not mean an XML document must be transmitted in Unicode. As long as client and server agree on the encoding, they can use any encoding that can be converted to Unicode.

A challenge with XML documents is that there are three locations where character encoding information may be provided:

  • A Byte Order Marker (BOM) at the begining of the entity body

  • An XML encoding property present at the start of the document

  • A charset property present in the Content-Type HTTP header

Each of these are optional, and when present may provide conflicting information. Section 3.2 of RFC7303 provides guidelines for how to infer the character encoding of a document. In order of priority:

  1. A BOM (Section 3.3) is authoritative if it is present in an XML MIME entity;

  2. In the absence of a BOM (Section 3.3), the charset parameter is authoritative if it is present.

  3. If an XML MIME entity is received where the charset parameter is omitted, no information is being provided about the character encoding by the MIME Content-Type header. XML-aware consumers MUST follow the requirements in section 4.3.3 of [XML] that directly address this case. XML-unaware MIME consumers SHOULD NOT assume a default encoding in this case.

Section 8 of RFC7303 provides several examples of consistent and inconsistent XML encoding.

An important consequence of the document character set is that values of numeric character references (such as ǵ and ǵ for LATIN SMALL LETTER G WITH ACUTE) are interpreted as Unicode characters - no matter what encoding you use for your document. This is a common source of error among those who are not clear about the distinction.

Note that not all Unicode characters can be used anywhere in XML. Certain characters are excluded from use in tag names (elements and attributes), and XML 1.1 expands significantly on the range of characters that may be used compared with XML 1.0.


See application/xml.



MIME media type name: text

MIME subtype name: csv

Required parameters: none

Optional parameters: charset, header

Common usage of CSV is US-ASCII, but other character sets defined by IANA for the “text” tree may be used in conjunction with the “charset” parameter.

The “header” parameter indicates the presence or absence of the header line.Valid values are “present” or “absent”. Implementors choosing not to use this parameter must make their own decisions as to whether the header line is present or absent.

Encoding considerations:

As per section 4.1.1. of RFC 2046 [3], this media type uses CRLF to denote line breaks.However, implementors should be aware that some implementations may use other values.




Obsoleted in favor of application/javascript



JSON text SHALL be encoded in Unicode [RFC4627]. The default encoding is UTF-8.

Since the first two characters of a JSON text will always be ASCII characters [RFC0020], it is possible to determine whether an octet stream is UTF-8, UTF-16 (BE or LE), or UTF-32 (BE or LE) by looking at the pattern of nulls in the first four octets:

00 00 00 xx  UTF-32BE
00 xx 00 xx  UTF-16BE
xx 00 00 00  UTF-32LE
xx 00 xx 00  UTF-16LE
xx xx xx xx  UTF-8