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How electronic publishing is changing academia for the better

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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 Hannah Skoda


When I started in my current post, one of my students, off to a nightclub, very cheekily asked me whether when I was young, they were still called discos. The same sorts of feelings are coming to characterize attitudes towards books – our students find it hard to imagine a time when nothing was available electronically. They are helped immensely by the possibilities of electronic publication, not just by the ease of access, but also by the different format, abstracts at the start of each chapter, search facilities, and so on. It makes ‘gutting a book’ a particularly efficient process, as there is very little mess to clear up afterwards and very little time wasted. And this has exciting and challenging implications for authors. Drafting abstracts for each chapter is very good discipline, as is the need to think especially carefully before using key terms, in the knowledge that readers can easily search them and use them as anchors to guide their reading.

All this suggests that electronic publications pander to our need to save time. But there is something more to it than that. Talking about reading in the late sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne warned that ‘It’s an indication that it hasn’t been cooked properly, and a sign of indigestion, when someone regurgitates the meat that he has just swallowed’ (Essais, 1.26): the ideal reader should chew and digest the text. In a sense, it’s our responsibility as writers, publishers, and readers now to ensure that the possibilities of electronic publishing foster this kind of active reading, rather than a passive one. Already, the reader is able to navigate his or her own way through the text in much more independent ways than the traditional book tends to encourage; the flexibility of the electronic format perhaps allows easier comparison between texts, and the transitory nature of the word on the screen somehow looks less dogmatic.

Montaigne-Dumonstier
Michel de Montaigne, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are exciting possibilities for the future: Michel de Montaigne, who so loved to interpolate new thoughts into his text giving it a life of its own, would have fascinated by the possibilities of hypertext – not only can one add footnotes and references, but one can comment on one’s own thought processes, critique them and subject them to endless scrutiny. A figure like Montaigne might have added such hypertextual comments, and then felt tempted to comment on the comments: the process of something like an infinite regression opens up the horizons of thought and scholarship in exciting and challenging ways. To some extent, writers are already engaging with these possibilities, but it will be particularly exciting to see more traditionally minded disciplines, such as history, rising to the challenge of endless self-interrogation. We can imagine using hypertext to show thought in motion, to set texts in dialogue with each other, and, most of all, to keep us on our intellectual toes.

All the while, the form in which we access texts becomes more varied and allows us to read in more contexts. Snuggled under the bedclothes in the dark with a Kindle, or sitting stolidly in front of the computer screen. And the more choice we have, the more personal the process of reading can become. It’s quite possible that ease of access demystifies books and encourages us to be lazy readers, but it’s equally possible and far more exciting, that the electronic format and its myriad possibilities will sharpen our reading practices, and make us more critical and more reflective, both as writers and as readers.

Dr. Hannah Skoda is a Tutorial Fellow in History at St. John’s College in Oxford where she teaches late medieval history. She is the author of Medieval Violence: Physical Brutality in Northern France, 1270-1330 and Legalism: Anthropology and History, both published by Oxford University Press.

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