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Volume, variety, and online scholarly publishing

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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, and part of University Press Scholarship Online. 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 John Louth


One of the questions we are asked most frequently as university press editors is whether and how our work has changed to accommodate digital publishing. That can be taken to refer to a wide range of changes, but if we mean the digital publication of scholarly monographs, the answer, thankfully, is “not much”. One of the many benefits of Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO), which has just celebrated its tenth anniversary, is that it allows editors to focus on what we have always done: trying to secure the best authors with the most important scholarly contributions. There is some extra work required to prepare materials for production but that is more than set off by the fact that authors find OSO to be another reason to publish with us.

But that’s a pretty uninteresting answer to a question which could be restated as a challenge: What are you doing to make the most of the possibilities of digital publishing? In OUP’s Law publishing department we have had the good fortune of being part of an organization that is willing to innovate in order to explore these possibilities. Since 2006 we have been producing online resources aimed at specialist communities of researchers, mainly in international law, whose habits and requirements we feel we understand well. These resources combine different content types (cases, legislation, articles, books) with greatly enriched linking and browsing.

Volume and variety

Such projects are invigorating but require constant attention to what, in operations management, is known as the volume-variety matrix (see diagram below). The choice between doing a large number of similar things and doing a small number of disparate things sits at the heart of many business propositions. At its simplest it is the choice between mass production at one extreme and tailor-made goods at the other. The desirable places to be lie along a continuum between the bottom right and the top left. The bottom left is seen as not having anything valuable to offer and the top right is unsustainable or unaffordable.

Volume-variety

You could say that this is just a fancy way of illustrating economies of scale, but this matrix alerts us to a potential human cost of projects: whenever people start to feel burnt out chances are you are straying too far towards the top right and need to rein in some of the scale or complexity of a project.

Neither our specialist projects nor Oxford Scholarship Online would sit at either extreme of the diagonal arrow in the diagram. OSO covers a wide range of subjects (20 entire disciplines) but manages this variety by dealing with just one type of content (books that are all structured in the same way) and by only marking up references to other books and articles as “open URL,” which leaves it to libraries’ software to determine whether that library holds a print copy of an item. The international law products on the other hand focus on a comparatively narrow field but label every item (chapter of a book, article, case) according to a subject taxonomy that runs to well over 1,000 possible topics and create links for every reference to a case or piece of legislation that occurs in the text. As the model would predict, this meant starting off with relatively small amounts of content. Our first case service, Oxford Reports on International Law, had only 119 cases at launch in 2006 (it now has over 5,000) and Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law had 400 entries at launch in 2008 (It now has over 1,600).

Evolution

As you would expect in such a rapidly developing medium, the projects evolve, and as they do so we can see movement along, and possibly away from, the ideal line depicted between the bottom right and top left. As Sophie Goldsworthy mentioned in her contribution to this blog on the origins of Oxford Scholarship Online, there are plans to add further variety to OSO in terms of the ways of locating content and the types of content that it publishes. As for the Law products, they grow constantly and we keep adding new content sets. Such an increase in volume carries the danger of straying into the top right corner of the matrix. Since we cannot stop adding to the volume of content, we need to see how we can harness the work we have put in over the past eight years to reduce complexity by adding more automation. Our links database (the Oxford Law Citator) now holds over 20,000 case references and over 7,000 treaty references for international law. We know that new content which we add will mostly refer to these items for which we already have records, so we can automate the process of finding these references in the text and resolving the links reducing a lot of the cost of enriching data.

The test of whether all of this is worthwhile is the response of our users which has been very positive for Oxford Scholarship Online and the Law products. In turn, we continue to learn more from users about how we can make their research outputs more useful and within OUP the teams are learning from each other’s experiences of managing volume and variety to ensure that we can innovate in a sustainable way.

John Louth is Editor-in-Chief of Academic Law Books, Journals, and Online at Oxford University Press 

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