Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

OSO, UPSO, and XML

By Lenny Allen

Director of Institutional Accounts

The title of the classic Philip K. Dick story asks whether androids dream of electric sheep. I don’t know the answer to that particular question, but I do know that we’re all–at this very moment, asleep or awake–dreaming of a digital monograph platform that is financially viable, intuitive, sustainable from the perspective of a rapidly shifting market environment, and adaptable enough to be able to meet both the short and long-term needs of scholarly research at all levels as well as the development of new business and acquisition models.

Our shared mission dictates that we disseminate scholarly content as widely as possible. But how best to fulfill this mission and meet the ongoing needs of academic research all while satisfying the above criteria? Simply publishing our content in electronic format is no longer enough.

Oxford Scholarship Online, launched nearly a decade ago and conceived of when ebooks were in what was then a virtually embryonic phase of development, has blazed a trail that is only now being followed in the marketplace. The use of XML and the precise nature of the text tagging it provided was an early and fundamental decision and has been instrumental to OSO’s success.

XML provides us the ability to do more than give users what is essentially a static “picture” of a book, offering instead a rich, robust text that meets the needs of scholarly research today and for the foreseeable future. In spite of all the rapid technological developments and the ensuing seismic shifts in the market, one thing has remained constant:  the nature and methodology of scholarly research. This is often lost in the clamor of our current discussion so it’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time that this is at the very heart of what we do and why we do it.

As OSO now evolves into University Press Scholarship Online and we begin the process of including other university press content on our platform, — see our partner presses list — we’re more focused than ever on the viability of the monograph as a key medium of scholarly communication. The ability to conduct precisely targeted searches across multiple presses within the same platform is an exciting development and one that promises to do much in the way of advancing scholarly research.

XML is what makes that long-held dream a fully-functioning reality. Rather than merely replicating the confining linearity of the print book usage experience, XML instead offers accurate search-and-discoverability tools that greatly enhance research. Even in its latest incarnation, PDF cannot replicate the advantages provided by XML tagging, which identifies each piece of data and allows it to be found in the context of the search being made. By contrast, PDF searches are analogous to those made on the open web. Improvements made recently to PDF are all ‘bolt-on’ pieces of functionality applied to something which is intrinsically static. XML, in contrast, is designed from the ground up as a dynamic, repurposeable method of managing sophisticated data.

Students, researchers, and scholars are becoming ever more sophisticated consumers of electronic content. We need only look to the latest generation of discoverability services for evidence of the absolute importance of feature-rich metadata. In the newly dawning era of demand-driven acquisition (aka Patron Driven Acquisition) the discoverability of content has become of paramount importance. If the new formula for library acquisitions can be posited as “access = purchase,” no academic publisher can afford to exert less than a herculean effort at ensuring their content discoverability. The higher the quality of the XML tagging, the easier it becomes to discover the content users are looking for amid the ocean of online information, much of which is lacking in the authority guaranteed by the peer-review process.

OSO, UPSO, and all other Oxford online products have been built under the umbrella of a digital strategy that is in many ways dependent on the XML format. We continue to believe that will hold true going forward and that XML provides enormous benefits to researchers and consumers of scholarly content–our own and that of the presses with whom we partner on the UPSO platform.

A version of this article previously appeared on The Digital Digest.

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