The Research Trust

April 30, 2010

Think of it as Oprah’s Book Club for scholars.

Academics may cringe at the comparison, but that is essentially the idea behind the Oxford Bibliographies Online: Someone you trust telling you what, among endless options, you should read -- in classics, criminology, Islamic studies, social work, or any of the other 50 areas of study the Oxford University Press plans to add to the new online reference guide by the end of 2015.

That makes Oxford Bibliographies Online, or OBO, the most ambitious project of its kind. And depending on where you’re sitting, it could be either a boon for scholars struggling to navigate an impossibly large sea of potential sources, or a vehicle for entrenching scholarship in the status quo.

The Oxford press is billing the site, which opened earlier this month, as the former. Thanks largely to the growth of online content repositories and the open-access movement, the research world is flatter than ever before, and there are fewer fences. Ostensibly, this is good for scholarship because individual researchers can explore and map broader landscapes. Practically, it is bad for scholars because the landscape is so broad that it is easy to get lost.

“Students are out there using the content that is available to them, not always paying attention to whether it’s the right place to start,” says Tim Barton, president of the U.S. branch of Oxford University Press.

The OBO, currently in its beta phase, is meant to be a compass. “Because of the proliferation of ways of publishing, the digitization of so much material that used to be so hard to access, and the bringing back of information that would have disappeared into obscurity, there’s this general sense among people doing serious research that they are having trouble keeping track of it,” says Damon Zucca, the publication’s executive editor.

In creating the OBO, Oxford didn’t invent the bibliography, of course. Zucca points to several contemporary examples: Brill’s Index Islamicus, the MLA International Bibliography and L'Année philologique, all of which are available digitally. But comprehensive bibliographies such as those “don’t help you narrow your choices,” he says. “They are not designed to help someone who is drowning in scholarly materials.” Comprehensive lists are relics of a bygone era when scarcity, not surplus, was the bane of the academic researcher, says Zucca. Modern scholars, on the other hand, crave a more selective index.

Oxford’s goal with the project, he says, is to “make sure the sources they’re looking at are worth their time.”

This is a task the OBO delegates to a “leading expert” in each topic. Here is how it works: Either the editor or editorial board — there is one of each for each area of study — recommends an expert (often from among their ranks, in the case of the current index) to put together an annotated list of recommended reading for scholars doing research on a particular topic, e.g., Apollonius of Rhodes. The expert writes the entry, which is then vetted by one editorial board member and an outsider. Any significant revisions are reviewed by the subject editor before the entry goes live. The boards for each subject area are assembled by the subject editor and the Oxford University Press officials who appointed that editor.

The OBO lists the editors and editorial boards for each subject area on a page on the site; the site includes biographies and personal statements from each of the editors of the OBO's first four "modules": Tamara Sonn, of the College of William and Mary, for Islamic studies; Dee L. Clayman, of the City University of New York, for classics; Edward Mullen, of Columbia University, for social work; and Richard Rosenfeld, of the University of Missouri at St. Louis, for criminology.

Visitors to the site can send feedback to the editor if they believe certain sources have been unduly included or omitted from the expert’s list, but an editor cannot change the list without the blessing of its author. The authors will be asked to update entries routinely to reflect changes in the literature — which, Zucca notes, will not only include books and journal articles, but also blogs and any other media the experts might deem essential to understanding a given topic. There are currently about 50 entries per subject area.

So the OBO stands to save scholars a good deal of time. But is it really good for scholarship? A number of serious questions to that effect were raised during development meetings, officials say: Might this model centralize authority in a single author and cloister of board members at the expense of other worthy sources? If the OBO becomes as popular as its creators hope, could its intentionally limited scope have a narrowing effect on scholarship, particularly among students? And if the experts become kingmakers in their field, could the publication’s mission become corrupted by politics and cronyism?

Officials at the project maintain faith in its peer-review process — which, they point out, is no less rigorous than that of typical academic journals, walled gardens in their own right. The OBO also links to other relevant Web bibliographies, in case visitors want to take a look at a more comprehensive array of potential sources. “The whole project has been developed to point outwards to other useful sources,” Zucca says.

But since the point is to reduce the time academics spend sorting through myriad sources, Casper Grathwol, vice president and publisher for reference at Oxford, admits that the OBO could create a “kingmaker effect,” which could conceivably result in some academic politicking.

There is not currently any limit on how many entries a single expert can contribute, although the level of expertise required to author each entry (and the editor's ostensible commitment to authorizing only qualified contributors) should prevent individual scholars from wielding too much authority across a range of subjects, Zucca says. Besides, he adds, the OBO does not hide the identities of its authors or editors; if users do not think the people behind the entries are trustworthy, they can choose not to use them.

“Will [peer review and transparency] be enough?” Grathwol says. “I don’t know. But I think a project like this has to take that risk, because if you have to wait for their to be full consensus in the academic community before building a project like this, then it will never get built.”

Besides, Grathwol says, the Oxford press would prefer to “rely on the best nature of our academic contributors, instead of assuming the worst.”

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