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Developing a module for Oxford Scholarship Online

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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 Nicola Wilson


When I was invited to develop two lists for Oxford Scholarship Online, I jumped at the chance. From the perspective of a commissioning editor, digital publishing has extended the “life” of our copyrights indefinitely, and we no longer need to hold a book in physical print for it to continue to be available to our readers.

Social determinants of healthThe first module that I developed was “Public Health and Epidemiology,” back in 2008. The books contained in the module have been published by our medical department over the course of three decades, and many are now considered public health classics, such as Michael Marmot’s Social Determinants of Health, and Geoffrey Rose’s The Strategy of Preventative Medicine.

The books that we chose to include on Oxford Scholarship Online present research and analysis of global health issues, and insight into the impact of diseases and conditions on populations. Several of the projects in the module have directly influenced policy planning and clinical attitudes to disease prevention and management, transforming scientific investigation methods and treatment approaches worldwide.

The biggest challenge in developing the module was the time that it took to clear permission to reproduce the material online. Many of the contracts and agreements that we held for our older books long pre-dated electronic resources, and we had to ask the authors and editors to sign contract addendums to allow us to proceed with publishing the books online. In some instances, authors had died since the book was published with us, so we needed to contact authors’ estates and ask surviving relatives to grant us permission to reproduce the material online.

In other cases, we needed to trace the ownership of third-party copyrighted material which was included in the books, so I became a detective, trying to identify the current owners of defunct publishers, some of which had changed their ownership through multiple company mergers over a thirty-year period. What naively started out as a few hours of looking through dusty hard-copy records in our basement, turned into a few months of internet heavy investigation and phone calls to numerous publishers’ Rights departments.

The amount of work that clearing permissions created turned it into an “all hands on deck during evenings and weekends” project. Over half of the medical department pitched in extra hours over a four-month period to ensure that we hit the launch deadline that we had been set. (Never underestimate the power of food to complete a project on schedule.)

The trickiest book that we worked on was Nutrition for Developing Countries, which was originally published in 1993 before our copyright clearance rules were defined. It’s full of unique hand drawn illustrations of Tanzanian families, different types of food, and easy-to-read graphs. It was specifically presented in such a way that could be used as a “show and tell” book by doctors working with non-literate families in Africa. For example, they could point at the illustrations of healthy foods in the book and explain to nursing mothers how eating those foods would help their babies to grow strong and remain healthy.

However, our challenge was trying to find out who had drawn the pictures, and subsequently who owned the copyright for them. Many of the illustrations had been drawn by a friend of one of the editors, and given to the editor as a wedding present. Did this mean that the copyright was held by the editor, or was it held by the artist? No copyright permission had ever been signed to state either way, and we had no contact details for the artist to enquire with them directly. We contacted the book editor, but they were often working in areas of Africa where Internet access was non-existent, so it took around four months to liaise with the editor and the artist (whom the editor contacted on our behalf), and acquire permission from both of them (to cover all legal bases) to use the illustrations in a digital form.

A major benefit of putting books online is the global availability of the information they contain; practitioners and academics can access and use these books online wherever they are in world. It’s wonderful that public health and epidemiology books attract a global readership, and through their availability online, they will have an even broader reach, and continue to help develop and improve research and treatment for many years to come.

Nicola Wilson is Senior Commissioning Editor for Palliative Medicine and Public Health and Epidemiology at Oxford University Press.

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