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Proposal to allow looping of previously unlooped datanames


In the original DDL1 and the current version of DDLm, categories must be explicitly labelled as loopable in order for their datanames to appear in multi-row loops.

In some situations, being able to loop a conventionally single-row category is desirable. For example, structural data might be presented in both standard and alternate space group settings, meaning multiple space groups are included in the datablock. While such a use of CIF datanames may appear to be benign, it can easily lead to CIF-reading software silently producing incorrect results. The underlying reason for this is that interpretation of looped dataname values often depends on values of unlooped datanames (e.g. unit cell parameters are needed to transform fractional coordinates into distances), and more than one value for these unlooped datanames therefore leads to ambiguity.

We here propose a mechanism that allows any dataname to appear in a multi-row loop, while protecting current software from inadvertent misinterpretation of such files.

Proposal summary

A new dataname, _audit.schema, is defined. Values of this dataname are linked to special categories that are used to loop and link other categories together. All CIF-reading software should check this dataname. CIF-writing software need only set this dataname if a non-default value is chosen. All current CIF usage corresponds to the default value.


For ease of discussion we adopt some terminology from relational databases:

  • A compound key is a set of datanames whose values collectively determine a unique row in a loop
  • A key is a dataname that is part of a compound key
  • A child key is a key whose values are restricted to values taken by a parent key.
  • Sibling keys are keys that have a common parent key

Proposal in detail

This proposal affects only the domain dictionaries and dREL.

Domain dictionaries

(i) Dataname _audit.schema is added to the core dictionary, and all CIF reading software is expected, after a transitional period, to check its value; if missing, the value defaults to Base, corresponding to all current CIF datafiles. See Appendix I for a formal DDLm definition.

(ii) A 'datablock equivalent' expansion dictionary is defined, which would allow information from multiple (core CIF) datablocks to be presented in a single datablock (see definition in Appendix II).

(iii) Once _audit.schema checking is widespread, expansion dictionaries are allowed to add keys to previously-defined categories. Datafiles written according to the expansion dictionaries must set _audit.schema appropriately, and change the 'Set' designation of any categories that can now be written with multiple loop packets.

(iv) Most datanames currently in child categories of cell (e.g. cell_length.a is in category cell_length) are returned to the cell category (so cell_length.a becomes cell.length_a). In the current draft cif_core dictionary, datanames for describing the unit cell are split between the cell_angle, cell_length, cell_reciprocal_* etc. categories. These categories are all single row (i.e. 'Set') categories and would vary together, that is, it is unlikely that one of these categories would have multiple rows while the others contained only a single row. The reason for separating these datanames into separate categories therefore appears to be to allow the dREL expressions to become more compact: for example, cell volume can be written as v.a * ( v.b ^ v.c) instead of the lengthier c.vector_a * (c.vector_b ^ c.vector_c). Under the current proposal, we would need to create a child key for every single cell_ category, even though all datanames could instead be contained in a single category and only a single key created. Note also that the DDL2 datanames all belong to the cell category, so that the DDLm datanames are distinct from both the DDL2 and DDL1 datanames because the period occurs in a different position. On balance, the proliferation of child keys and harmonisation with DDL2 is considered to outweigh the concision of the dREL expressions. Therefore, it is proposed that the current cif_core is altered so that all the cell_ datanames return to a single cell category. Note that this does not include the cell_measurement and cell_measurement_reflns categories, which is clearly separate.


dREL expects methods that reference looped categories outside the current category to explicitly construct the key to those categories. In a situation where the list of keys for that category and the current category may be altered by an expansion dictionary, such explicit key construction requires duplication of functionally identical code, clutters the definition and is generally unnecessary, because, in most cases, a unique row for the external category can be derived from the current values of the current category's keys.

In addition, dREL refers to external 'Set' categories without any use of keys, although formally all categories now have keys.

dREL is therefore altered to behave as follows:

In non-category methods:

(1) All uses of the "dot" operator of the form implicitly assume the values of any sibling compound keys for cat currently in scope.

(2) All Loop operations restrict packets of the looped category to those that have common values for any sibling compound keys in scope (a 'pre-filter' operation)

(3) If rule (1) does not lift ambiguity, keys may be listed in the format cat[key1_val, key2_val].name (a dREL syntax enhancement).

(4) (General style) Given that compound keys are directly accessed in the above rules, so-called ID (primary) key datanames constructed from the values of compound keys are avoided in dREL methods. In particular, their values should never be deconstructed or assigned to other datanames, and may only be constructed within category methods.

In category methods:

dREL category methods are required to set the values of all compound keys in order to create the category. In order for new keys to be added without changing the method unnecessarily, the following rule is adopted:

(4) The category method is repeatedly executed for every combination of those compound key values for which no values are explicitly set by the category method. Execution follows the rules for normal methods, with the compound key values described in the previous sentence placed in scope.


For a simple example, consider the 'datablock equivalent' expansion dictionary sketched out in Appendix II. This dictionary imports the core dictionary, in the process adding a single category ('ENTRY') and child keys of this category to every core dictionary category. As there is a default value for the ENTRY category key, the overall dictionary remains a valid basis for interpreting 'normal' datablocks, as any missing ENTRY key and child keys simply take the default value.

Should an application wish to present in a single datablock data that normally requires several datablocks, that application can adopt the 'entry' schema, under which multiple values of are possible. The ENTRY category then has multiple values of, and so all other categories must also specify for each packet which value of that information relates to by explicitly setting the value of their ENTRY child key.

For a further example, an annotated symCIF dictionary using the above mechanisms is provided here.


Each _audit.schema value refers to a distinct set of categories that can have multiple packets. Software written for _audit.schema "A" will in general only function correctly for a file written against _audit.schema "B" if the set of multiple-packet categories for "B" is a subset of those for "A".

Note that _audit.schema is advisory and that the same information can be determined from the dictionaries listed in audit_conform.

An earlier version of this proposal suggested including the 'datablock equivalent' expansion dictionary mentioned above into the core dictionary. This category ('ENTRY') and keys have been moved to an expansion dictionary in this version of the proposal to reduce clutter in the core dictionary. Appendix II is an excerpt from this dictionary.

Legacy issues


One category (space_group) in the DDL1 cif core dictionary was mistakenly allowed to be looped without making corresponding alterations to the many other categories that relied upon having a single space group. This is fixed under the current proposal as follows:

(i) category space_group is reverted to a Set category;

(ii), space_group_Wyckoff.sg_id and space_group_symop.sg_id are removed

In a separate DDLm dictionary file (a successor to symCIF):

(iii) the space_group category is provided with an additional key dataname

(iv) all categories that previously assumed a single space group are provided with child keys of space_group, as done previously in the old symCIF dictionary. In particular, the keys removed in step (ii) above once again become child keys of space_group.

Finally: (v) a new enumerated value of _audit.schema is defined, (e.g. 'space group tables') corresponding to a datablock possibly containing multiple packets in the category space_group.

Note that the example symCIF dictionary instead defines a new category, space_group_hub that space_group is a child of, for demonstration purposes.


The DDL1 dictionaries define exptl_crystal_id with child keys in diffrn_refln and refln. However, _diffrn_refln_crystal_id does not appear in a looped context in the 380,000 file COD corpus, and _exptl_crystal_id appears only once as a looped dataitem in 3 incorrectly constructed files from the same high pressure experiment. refln_crystal_id never appears. From this we conclude that current software assumes a single value for exptl_crystal_id. In going from DDL1 to DDLm we must decide whether a category listed as 'both' for looping in DDL1 should be Set or Loop: given that current usage is to treat exptl_crystal as a Set category, we define _exptl_crystal_id in a exptl_crystal Set category and remove all child keys into a separate 'multi-crystal' dictionary in which exptl_crystal is looped.

Appendix I: definition of _audit.schema       '_audit.schema'
_name.category_id    audit
_name.object_id      schema

     This dataname identifies the type of information contained in the
     datablock. Software written for one schema will not, in general,
     correctly interpret datafiles written against a different schema.

     Specifically, each value of _audit.schema corresponds to a list
     of categories that were (potentially implicitly) restricted to a
     single packet in the default Base schema, but which can contain
     multiple packets in the specified schema.  All categories
     containing child keys of the listed categories may also contain
     multiple packets and do not need to be listed.
     The category list for each schema may instead be determined from
     the list of dictionaries that this datablock conforms to (see

_type.contents          Text
_type.purpose           State
_type.container         Single
_type.source            Assigned
    Base                'Original Core CIF schema'
   'Space group tables'  [ space_group_tables ]
    Entry                [ entry ]   #information from multiple datablocks in one block
    Custom              'Examine dictionaries provided in _audit_conform'
    Local               'Locally modified dictionaries. These datafiles should not be distributed'
_enumeration.default    Base

Appendix II: Definitions of master hub category and sample key

save_ENTRY                          ENTRY
_definition.scope                       Category
_definition.class                       Set

    All other categories are provided with keys that are linked to
    the key of this category. In this way, this category can be used
    to replace the implicit linking that exists when datanames appear
    in the same data block, and as a result multiple rows in this
    category allow the data content from multiple data blocks to
    be instead presented in a single data block.

_name.category_id                       CIF_CORE
_name.object_id                         ENTRY                      ''

save_                          ''
    A unique identifier for items in this category.

_name.category_id                       ENTRY
_name.object_id                         id
_type.purpose                           Key
_type.container                         Single
_type.contents                          Text
_type.source                            Assigned
_enumeration.default                    -


Example of a child key definition

save_space_group.entry_id                         '_space_group.entry_id'
_name.category_id                      'space_group'
_name.object_id                        'entry_id'
    A child key of the entry category. This dataname may
    be omitted from a datafile if the entry category has only
    one packet.
_type.purpose                      Link
_type.container                    Single
_type.contents                     Text
_type.source                       Related
_name.linked_item_id               ''

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