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The Truth About Normative Referencing

by Todd Sandler

Let’s assume for a moment that you are a delegate at an International Organization for Standardization technical committee (ISO/TC) meeting where a new work item is being discussed. The document requires referencing a test procedure and you are aware of a proven, widely used and accepted test method developed by ASTM International that fulfills all of the requirements necessary for the application of the proposed ISO standard. But what are the rules for referencing documents, especially those developed by organizations other than ISO, in ISO standards?

A normative reference in ISO parlance is equivalent in ASTM International to a referenced document. It is indispensable to the application of the standard. Without it, the subject technical standard cannot be fully and properly utilized. For example, it could be a test method for determining a property of a specified material or a practice describing the construction and/or calibration of required testing apparatus.

The basic rules concerning normative references are given in Section 6.2.2 (see sidebar right) of Part 2 of the ISO/IEC (International Electrotechnical Commisssion) Directives (4th edition, 2001) and are shown in the sidebar opposite.


Historically there has been some confusion about the inclusion of non-ISO documents as normative references in ISO standards. Some ISO TCs had even adopted a policy prohibiting the referencing of documents other than those developed by ISO. At the April 2002 meeting of the ISO Technical Management Board (TMB), representatives from ANSI, citing ISO Council Resolution 14/2001 regarding cooperation with external standards developing organizations, expressed concerns that the wording in the abovementioned Clause 6.2.2 could be misinterpreted as excluding the use of non-ISO standards as normative references. Also discussed were concerns that some ISO technical committees had adopted policies of exclusive ISO reference in those standards for which they are responsible.

In response to these concerns, the ISO/TMB secretary clarified that the current clause 6.2.2, although giving preference to ISO standards where they exist, provides for opportunities to use standards from other organizations as normative references. The ISO/TMB members also strongly agreed that ISO TCs may not adopt policies of exclusive ISO reference in those standards for which they are responsible and ruled that any such existing policies be withdrawn.

The following is an excerpt from the TMB Communique, No. 16, May 2002:

7. Rules on normative references in ISO standards

In the ISO/IEC Directives, Part 2, sub clause 6.2.2, the rules on normative references for the drafting of ISO standards are stated. In principle, the normatively referenced documents shall be documents published by ISO and/or IEC. Documents published by other bodies may be referred to in a normative manner under certain conditions, which are stated in the sub clause.

It had been found, however, that some ISO committees had adopted a policy of only accepting ISO and IEC standards as normative references in ISO standards, thereby negating the option of referencing standards normatively, which originated from other sources. The TMB also noted that some ISO committees had taken steps to adopt standards developed by other organizations without having obtained agreement on copyright from these organizations.

Both approaches are not in line with the provisions in the ISO/IEC Directives.

The clarification provided by the ISO TMB is good news for users of the standards development process. It eliminates marketplace confusion by avoiding duplication of effort. It is good news for standards development organizations as it clearly respects their portfolios of intellectual property. Most of all, it is good news for those experts crafting the content of the standards. For clearly, the choice of whether or not to use or reference any standard is appropriately in the hands of the stakeholders who bring their technical expertise, market relevance, and concern for public safety to the international standards development process.

So, if an ASTM standard is technically appropriate for reference in an ISO standard, advocate it with confidence knowing the ability to reference standards of other organizations is permitted by the ISO/IEC Directives. //

Copyright 2003, ASTM

Todd Sandler is ASTM manager of International Coordination.

Section 6.2.2 of Part 2 of the ISO/IEC Directives

6.2.2 Normative references

This optional element shall give a list of the referenced documents cited (see in the document in such a way as to make them indispensable for the application of the document. For dated references, each shall be given with its year of publication, or, in the case of enquiry or final drafts, with a dash together with a footnote “To be published.” and full title. The year of publication or dash shall not be given for undated references. When an undated reference is to all parts of a document, the publication number shall be followed by the indication “(all parts)” and the general title of the series of parts (i.e. the introductory and main elements, see annex D).

In principle, the referenced documents shall be documents published by ISO and/or IEC. Documents published by other bodies may be referred to in a normative manner provided that

a) the referenced document is recognized by the ISO and/or IEC committee concerned as having wide acceptance and authoritative status as well as being publicly available,

b) the ISO and/or IEC committee concerned has obtained the agreement of the authors or publishers (where known) of the referenced document to its inclusion and to its being made available as required — the authors or publishers will be expected to make available such documents on request,

c) the authors or publishers (where known) have also agreed to inform the ISO and/or IEC committee concerned of their intention to revise the referenced document and of the points the revision will concern, and

d) the ISO and/or IEC committee concerned
undertakes to review the situation in the light of any changes in the referenced document.