Looking back: ten years of Oxford Scholarship Online
Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) launched in 2003 with 700 titles. Now, on its tenth birthday, it’s the online home of over 9,000 titles from Oxford University Press’s distinguished academic list. To celebrate OSO turning ten, we’ve invited a host of people to reflect on the past ten years of online academic publishing, and what the next ten might bring.
By Sophie Goldsworthy
Back in 2001, there was a whole host of reference products online, and journals were well down that digital road. But books? Who on earth would want to read a whole book online? When the idea that grew into Oxford Scholarship Online was first mooted, it faced a lot of scepticism, in-house as well as out.
We were pretty sure we knew how monographs were used at that stage, and by whom. Scholars (and the occasional student) took them down from the library shelves and read them cover to cover. Sometimes not very many scholars, and not very many libraries, but then that was monograph publishing for you. At a time when print runs were dwindling and every conference featured a ‘death of the monograph’ panel, it was widely accepted that demand was declining and there wasn’t a great deal that could be done, bar continue to focus on publishing the very highest quality scholarship.
But we persisted, talking to librarians and others about how this content might work best for them online — how they’d want to buy it, and use it — and beginning the process of rethinking it for an online space. One important early decision was the adoption of standards established for journal content, and the commissioning of tens of thousands of abstracts and keywords for every book and chapter which would be pushed out to search engines and online aggregation services to ensure the content was discoverable. And so we started out, launching in 2003 with four busy publishing areas — philosophy, economics and finance, religion, and political science — and some 700 titles, making many of the most important books published by the Press accessible online for the first time. OSO doesn’t only keep pace with our new print publishing, releasing cutting-edge scholarship by today’s authors, but has opened many seminal works up to new readers: works such as Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, Will Kymlicka’s Multicultural Citizenship, Chris Wickham’s Framing the Middle Ages, Ray Jackendoff’s Foundations of Language, Henry Chadwick’s The Church in Ancient Society, Peter Hall and David Soskice’s Varieties of Capitalism, and Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen’s The Quality of Life.
Looking back over articles written about Oxford Scholarship Online in its early years, it’s cheering to note that most of the future plans we had in mind have come to fruition. We’ve extended the site to cover the full range of our academic publishing, taking it into law, medicine, and the sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences, and in the process building to around 9,250 titles in 20 subjects live on the site today. We’ve adopted flexible business models, adding purchase models to help librarians curate their digital collections, and most recently allowing customers to design their own tailor-made collections of titles, making OSO a practical tool for the creation of online course packs and reading lists. We’ve also opened the platform up to the wider community, to help other publishers take their content online, and are excited to be working with so many leading university presses from Yale, Chicago, Stanford, MIT, California, Edinburgh, Manchester, and elsewhere.
But we’ve also developed Oxford Scholarship Online in ways we couldn’t have imagined at that stage, optimizing the site for use on mobile devices (if we couldn’t imagine anyone reading a monograph online, we certainly couldn’t conceive of them dipping into one on a phone), adding user personalization, more intuitive search tools and better linking, and ever more ways of sharing ideas and references with fellow students or colleagues. We are in continual dialogue with librarians and users, as well as observing the way people use the content on the site, which means we can tailor content and functionality to meet changes in research habits, and OSO continues to evolve in response to users’ suggestions and needs.
Most excitingly, for me, as our business is about dissemination, is the fact that the site has breathed new life into the monograph — that gloomy monograph, whose health has been subject to so much speculation over the years. OSO allows us to make this authoritative content accessible in places our print books failed to reach, from specialist institutions, such as seminaries, to universities that haven’t traditionally been able to build large collections of scholarly works, for economic or political reasons. And by using the XML to unpack the scholarship these books contain we’ve been able to create intelligent links, not only within the site itself and the rest of the Oxford portfolio but also across the wider web, letting our users plot their own research journeys through book chapters and journal articles, and out into reference look-ups or a quick dalliance with an altogether different discipline. At its most basic, OSO has taken those neglected monographs back down from their library shelves, dusted them off, and opened them up for all kinds of readers, wherever in the world they happen to be.
So what might it look like in the next ten years? The bundling of print and online is likely to feature sooner rather than later, as we recognise that readers like to use the different formats in complementary ways. The granularity may be extended to offer the reader a single book, even a single chapter. The site might host ancillary and multimedia content — the kind of thing that adds depth and context to a research project but won’t fit between the covers of a print book — or provide a space for open review and community hubs, building peer discussion into the evolution of a project. We might create other content specifically for the online space, or make it freely available on an open access model. Ultimately, Oxford Scholarship Online will continue to grow and to adapt, reflecting the ever-changing nature of the digital environment, and the fact that it has allowed us to get closer to our customers and readers than ever before, learning how our content is really used for perhaps the first time in our many-centuries-long history.
Sophie Goldsworthy is the Editorial Director for OUP’s Academic and Trade publishing in the UK, was Project Director of Oxford Scholarship Online from 2005 to 2010, and continues to be involved with the site. Read her previous blog posts.