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The challenges of discoverability

As we approach the one year anniversary of the Oxford Index Beta, Robert Faber, Director of Oxford’s Discoverability Program, reflects on the site’s evolution.

By Robert Faber


In the world of digital scholarship, discovery really matters. There are many new ways of reading content on the web or mobile devices, but making our publications easy to find in the vast ocean of digital information is a growing challenge. When we decided to take this on and set up a “discoverability” program across all Oxford University Press’s global academic publishing, it sounded simple enough: we just have to improve the ways people find and use our content, right? Right … (said our friends, at parties) … and exactly what does that involve? After eighteen hectic months, here’s our answer.

Why does discoverability matter so much?
It’s all about reading. Or, to make it sound more technical, “usage”. If we can’t find it, as readers, we certainly won’t be using it. Meanwhile, our authors want their work to be read, and librarians who make it available to readers want to know it’s useful. For us, as a university press, the fundamental aim is to make high-quality research and education accessible as widely as possible. And the journey begins with discovery.

So where’s the problem?
First we have to recognize that our behaviour as digital users is changing. Typical searches are often now by topic, not by publisher or by journal or book. For example, 80% of traffic to Oxford Journals is direct to the individual article — and fully 50% from Google alone. But there are plenty of other digital byways too.

In fact, there are many, many places where users can find out about our content: on the web, on discipline-based research networks, in library systems. There is no wrong door to our content; any way is a good way. That means we need to ensure readers can find a description of our content (by topic, as they are inclined to search) in any of the places they might want to look.

Increasingly, finding material is a matter of following connections. Citations have always been the common currency of research — whether scribbled on index cards or published as references in finished work. Each is a connection — ‘this tells you more’ — and their importance is growing exponentially as we share more electronically. Showing the connections across our content — by discipline, topic, author, or other common factors — will help researchers and increase the use of that material.

How do you tackle all that?
We decided to audit how easy it was to find our content. OUP’s list ranges widely, from journal articles and monographs to scholarly editions, research reviews and bibliographies, and general reference of all kinds. We found very good practice in some areas, with great free previews of content (for example), but not everywhere, and not in a way that joined things up for researchers. So we decided to consolidate that good practice and build an index to everything we publish: the Oxford Index.

The first step was to put together a standardized description of every item of content in one place. This means we can supply details of everything, consistently, to all the external partners who offer searching through their systems: libraries, research networks, web companies. From sending out just two or three sets of content once in a while, we now offer almost all our online content to an increasing range of partners and update it regularly.

We’ve compiled a common taxonomy, and started making more detailed connections by topic and author. For example, we now have more than 300,000 ‘overview’ pages, each of which help readers identify a topic — such as Pythagoras, Animal Farm, or futurism – and then offer a free reference entry plus links to related material.

Now almost a year old, you can see the Oxford Index Beta site taking shape. It made sense to build our own free, public view of the Index in a way that would be searchable from the web and cross-searchable across Oxford products. Already, more and more results are appearing in Google searches.

The Index is really a big map of all our content, showing you not only how to get there but also what’s in the same neighbourhood. The value is not the map itself, but in where you want to go. And like geographical maps on web pages (what on earth did we do before Google Maps?) we plan to embed the Index wherever and whenever it can be useful. So the brand new version of Oxford Reference includes overviews of all the topics Oxford Reference covers (derived from the Index) — as well as an Oxford Index underbar that shows links to related content across all Oxford products.

So where next?
You’ll see pathways enabled by the Index appearing on many Oxford products from now on, as we connect up this network of trusted information. It’s been a great team effort by data engineers, editors, marketers, and developers and if it works, we’ll have created new ways for users to discover OUP content and find the best, most relevant material. So their journey, and ours, will continue …

Robert Faber is editorial director for reference and director of the discoverability program for Oxford University Press’s Global Academic Business.

The Oxford Index is a free search and discovery tool from Oxford University Press. It is designed to help you begin your research journey by providing a single, convenient search portal for trusted scholarship from Oxford and our partners, and then point you to the most relevant related materials — from journal articles to scholarly monographs. One search brings together top quality content and unlocks connections in a way not previously possible. Take a virtual tour of the Index to learn more.

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