XML Essence Testing

Abraham Becker

XML Translation Specialist

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Heath (NIH)

Jeff Beck

Technical Information Specialist

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), National Library of Medicine (NLM), National Institutes of Heath (NIH)

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XML Essence Testing

Balisage: The Markup Conference 2010
August 3 - 6, 2010


PubMed Central (PMC) is the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) free digital archive of biomedical and life sciences journal literature.

PMC processes approximately 500 full-text XML articles per day, and 16,000 full-text articles per month, in over 40 evolving DTDs. The frequency of updates to the DTDs, and new versions of the NLM Archiving and Interchange DTD itself, force the XSLT style sheets that process those documents to also evolve rapidly. This continuous metamorphosis brought about a need to track the way changes to production XSLT style sheets affect XML result documents. A regression system was originally put into place which utilized the UNIX diff function. Its method was to check for textual differences between sample articles converted with "Production" XSLT style sheets, and those same sample articles converted with "Modified Local" XSLT style sheets (a basic regression test).

PMC must maintain content in different versions of the NLM Archiving and Interchange DTD. Since the release of version 3.0 in the fall of 2008, the PMC Conversion Group has been methodically upgrading our XSLT style sheets to XSLT2. This upgrade adds a level of confusion to our existing regression testing, since some of the changes from version 2.3 to version 3.0 are backwards incompatible, and some of the XML nesting structures have changed.

How can we verify that an article originally created in DTD version 2.3, is now correctly represented by the new DTD version 3.0 coding?

Upgrading or migrating the sample set to DTD 3.0 is an obvious answer, but in order to migrate the data, we need an XSLT conversion. It is the very XSLT style sheet that would perform this conversion which we aim to check. We needed a way to verify that the article written in DTD 3.0 is semantically the same as the 2.3 version. We needed to check that the test XML instance has the same content, even if the content is nested in a different structure, or captured using new named elements. We need to check the article's Essence.

Our solution was to define a set of XPaths that would extract essential nodes in the document, allowing us to compare a small subset of the most important nodes between a test and a control XML instance. The goal was to go beyond simple text comparison, to managing consistency of XML documents’ data and semantics across updates to the XSLT Converters.

Overview of the PMC XML Processing Model

Some background information is necessary for a good understanding of how the Essence Testing system works. As stated earlier, PubMed Central accepts XML in just over 40 different DTDs. Articles from each DTD are processed as follows:

  1. XML is submitted to the PMC FTP site, and ingested into the file system.

  2. OASIS XML Catalogs resolve source XML PUBLIC and SYSTEM identifiers, which map validation to the appropriate DTD.

  3. A configuration file determines which production XSLT style sheet to apply, based on the source XML DTD name and version.

  4. The production XSLT is used to convert the source XML to a common NLM Archiving and Interchange DTD 3.0 XML (NXML) format.

  5. The newly created NXML and its associated files (Images, PDFs, Supplementary files) are loaded to a common database for rendering and indexing.

Changes to the XSLT style sheets have an impact not only on the normalized NXML, but also on the HTML rendering. It is therefore important to ensure that changes to the XSLT style sheets do not negatively affect those downstream data products.


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The Essence Testing Process

The Essence Testing Software uses a single XML source instance (submitted by the external data provider), the user's "Modified local" copy of the appropriate XSLT style sheet, and the quality assured production NXML to test if the changes in the user's "Modified local" XSLT style sheet produce adverse effects in the test NXML output, when compared to the quality assured NXML.


Tracking the configuration used to convert each XML instance gives us the freedom to take completely random sample sets based on a given set of parameters. XML processing instructions are added to the NXML instances to facilitate tracking of the processing model applied. In the PMC system, the following information is written to PIs:

  1. DTD Identifier Value (DOCTYPE string used to resolve DTD)

  2. DTD Identifier Type (PUBLIC or SYSTEM)

  3. DTD Name

  4. DTD Version

  5. XSLT Name

  6. XSLT Version

  7. XSLT Effective Date

  8. If XSLT is Currently in production

These PIs are used to populate a tracking database in which each article's processing model is stored. Aside from generating sample sets, we have the added benefit of targeted reconversion when bugs are found. Each article instance is assigned to a specific processing configuration, and all articles processed with a given configuration can be queried for reconversion.


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Defining the Document's Essence

Familiarity with the XML model should guide which nodes in the XML test instances are the most important to monitor. The PMC Conversion Group created tests that fall into one of two categories: system critical or content related. System critical issues are those that directly impact the way an article is processed. For example, the Open Access Status registers inclusion in the PMC Open Access Subset. These articles are generally made available immediately to the public under a creative commons license. It is critical that this property is set correctly, because many non-Open Access articles are contractually bound to be hidden until an embargo period expires. Content related issues are those that pertain to the quality of the data, such as the count of paragraphs, sections, references, and figures.

  • System Critical: Open Access Status, Release Delays, Publication Dates, Journal Meta data, Article Meta data

  • Content Related: Presence of Abstract, Body, Paragraph Element counts, Back Matter, Article Type, Author counts, Language(s), Figure Table and Math counts, Bibliographic References, Citation counts

Example: Research articles are always associated with a journal in the PMC context, so this test is system critical. The element <journal-title> is a child of <journal-meta> in NLM DTD version 2.3. With the release of NLM DTD 3.0, the <journal-title-group> wrapper was added to group the optional elements <trans-title-group>, <abbrev-journal-title>, and <journal-subtitle>. A simple text comparison of these two structures would yield a mismatch. By using XPath, we facilitate comparison of the content from two separate DTD models, overlooking the differences in structure, focusing on consistency and meaning of the data.


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Essence XML Extractor Style Sheet

Each Essence Test is placed inside a literal result element in the Essence XML Extractor Style Sheet. This method of identifying the essential nodes via XPath can be applied to XML documents in two analogous, or two completely different DTDs. By creating a list of XPaths that point to the essential nodes in the result documents, we can extract the Essence from both the (test) NXML and from the quality assured production (control) NXML, using these extracted documents as a basis for comparison.


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Essence Testing Work flow

The Essence testing process is aimed at creating two Essence XML documents that can be compared to expose anomalies resulting from changes to the "Modified Local" XSLT. We start with the publisher XML file (source). Using the production XSLT(shown in green), a production NXML (gray) is converted, to be used as the control instance. Quality assurance on these documents is handled by the PMC data group. They report variations in rendering and processing, and verify that content is acceptable based on a set of approximately 90 quality checks. A test NXML instance is also created by applying the user's "Modified Local" XSLT style sheet (shown in purple) to the original source XML.


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Comparing Essence XML Documents

As mentioned earlier, the Essence XML Extractor XSLT is used to extract the Essence of both the test and control instances, creating a Test Essence XML and a Control Essence XML. These two documents are compared element-by-element, and any differences in structure or content are aggregated into a report.

Example: Below is an example of Essence XML documents from an article of the journal BMC Microbiology. Note that some of the tests are counts, and some are string comparisons. In this particular case, while running a weekly regression test, I noticed that the report showed a MathML formula was present in the test Essence XML, but not in the control Essence XML. After some investigation, I found that a bug was fixed in the XSLT converter a few weeks previous to this Essence Test, but there were still some lingering articles that needed to be reconverted. Because the processing configuration was stored in our tracking database, I was able to easily locate and reprocess all articles affected by the bug, without reprocessing the entire journal data set.


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Essence Report

The Essence report summary lists the number of differences by test category in the red box, showing a macro view of how the changes to the "Modified Local" XSLT are adding up in a more general sense. For each difference detected between the test and the control instances, a failure is reported below, aggregated by XML instance. "[added (test)]" means the test case has additional information when compared to the Control Essence XML. "[replaced (accepted)]" followed by "[with (test)]" means that the test case does not match the Control Essence XML, and the test instance contains something additional to what was found in the test instance.


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Using the Essence of an XML document as a basis for quality control is a viable solution for verifying that documents tagged in different versions of a schema or DTD represent the same semantic. Large data sets are time consuming to process, but random sampling maximizes the effects of testing, while limiting the time to run a given test. Controlling XSLT regression over large XML data sets is not trivial, and this system allows an acceptable means of monitoring the effects of those modifications over time.


How did we do at meeting the objectives?

The Essence Testing GUI has proven to be an effective and useful tool after several months in production. It ensures changes to XSLT style sheets do not have adverse effects on the quality of XML output. Using XPath to test the Essence of XML output allows comparisons between different DTD versions of the same article in an organized and reliable way.

Were there implementation problems?

Processing large data sets, especially those over 100 full-text articles, takes longer than what we would ideally want. Converting full-text XML articles, applying the Essence transformation, then comparing the output of those processes could be handled more efficiently with a modular, object oriented approach, involving several parallel processes converting XML simultaneously.

What future directions might the project take?

The configuration of this tool is specific to PubMed Central's data directory structures and database models. Modularizing the code for a more generic software API could be a direction for future improvement.

What are the greatest benefits of this system?

When an XSLT bug was found in the past, large portions of the entire XML data set would have been reconverted to fix it. Tracking the processing model information for each XML article instance significantly reduces the reprocessing overhead associated with such bugs, and allows more specificity when identifying affected articles. Negative impacts on NXML output due to changes in the XSLT style sheets have been significantly reduced. Automatic weekly regression tests continually reinforce the quality and integrity of the data stored in our system.


Jeff Beck, Sergey Krasnov, Vladimir Sarkisov, Andrei Kolotev, Anh Nguyen, and Laura Kelly provided a great deal of guidance in the design of this project. Their input, as always, has proven to be wise, insightful, and is very much appreciated. The comparison and reporting segment of the system was written by Jane Rall and Byungsoo Kim. This research was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the NIH, National Library of Medicine.


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Author's keywords for this paper: XML Essence Testing; Regression; XML Conformance Testing; XML Quality Control; Computer Science; Information Storage and Retrieval; Document Management; XML Testing