Oxford bibliographies: a great but proprietary solution for information overload

As @alltalk and others tweeted to us at SM, Oxford University Press (OUP) is celebrating library week next week by giving everyone free access to their online databases. Its not unusual for presses to periodically ungate their content so everyone can try some free samples. We don’t usually blog about press sales or free samples, but I did want to use this opportunity to talk about Oxford’s new bibliography series, which I think represents a new and interesting way to organize knowledge in today’s web-saturated environment.

Before I begin, I should state right away that the reason I heard about OUP’s bibliography project is that I wrote one as did another Mind here on the site, Matt. So there’s some transparency on that.

Oxford sees the Internet as a jungle: rich, dense, dangerous, and easy to get lost in. The bibliographies are meant to be the path through that jungle. Their basic form is extremely traditional: they are annotated bibliographies of about 100 entries. Each entry is broken down into sections. Each section is introduced by a short paragraph which contextualizes the entries, and then the entries themselves have an annotation which describes their central argument or finding. Pretty straightforward.

The goal of the bibliographies, however, is to be selective, so each section can only have a half-dozen or so entries. As a result, readers really only get the genuinely useful and important entries on a topic. Writing my bibliography, I was struck by the amount of conceptual work it required. These highly curated bibliographies are not just lists of ‘top rated’ articles, but carefully-structured narratives. I’ve been impressed by the quality of the bibliographies on the site, and by Oxford’s selection of authors.

Of course, annotated bibliographies are not new. What is new is the way Oxford is publishing them. These pieces are born digital and live digitally on the website. Unlike an encyclopedia or other reference work, there will be no second or third edition to purchase — institutions will just subscribe to a bibliography site that is being constantly updated. PLUS Oxford pipes each individual bibliography out to Amazon and other vendors so you can purchase individual bibliographies.

Do you see the genius of this system? It’s a paywall’d, cherry picked version of Wikipedia. And unlike a lot of embarrassing ‘next-gen’ reference works pushed by publishers, this one is actually really good. It’s simultaneously fantastic and scary.

It matters that this comes from OUP. There’s a big difference between, say, McGill-Queens University Press and Elsevier. One of them is a small press which really is in it for the love of publishing good books. The other is part of a massive corporation whose idea of demonstrating corporate responsibility is cutting its connections to the weapons industry. OUP is its own sort of beast. I think of it less as a university press and more as the last remaining political institution of the British Empire. In fact I think of it as that empire. This is a company that provides school books to the world, and carefully shepherds intellectual property across centuries. It will be interesting to see how they price this work, and how much of it they make accessible. Clearly they are looking to expand beyond textbooks and small runs of British Academy Monographs and move into the higher ed market more broadly.

So next week enjoy reading (and downloading) OUP’s offering for library week, and give the bibliographies a look. Open Access advocates will have to take a look at what OUP’s done and see how a similar OA project might work.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Oxford bibliographies: a great but proprietary solution for information overload

  1. I agree they are really good, but pricing is key. I’ve found that our library has been offered an annual subscription to the 74 bibliographies under “Chinese Studies” for the list price of US$850, discounted to US$672.

    I’ve also found that authors are paid about US$350 per entry, which is reasonable. At this price, the 74 entries under “Chinese Studies” would require 38 subscriptions to pay for the costs of the authors’ honoraria. If we double the cost to account for editorial and server costs, Oxford still only needs 76 subscribers to break even.

    But this is for one year; why are they charging annual charges for this? Most entries do not seem to be updated regularly (many still have 2011 and 2012 dates on them), so I can’t understand why they have annual charges.

    I do think these bibliographies are valuable, and I do not think that all information should be free, but I don’t understand why they cost so much. If the set of 102 Anthropology bibliographies also cost $672 per year, at our university we have to decide whether to buy about 16 fewer books (assuming $40 each on average) every year in order to subscribe to the bibliography. We are unlikely to subscribe.

  2. These are all valid points — particularly the one about how frequently the bibliographies will be updated. Like I said, when the window comes to sample them for free, it might be a good time to squirrel some away for later reference.

  3. I wrote an entry for this series and have had over 20 scholars write me for a copy of my entry, which I gladly send, and I’ve asked others for their entries. Paywalls are increasingly nothing more than electronic speedbumps requiring an extra moment to Google email addresses.

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