What’s Wrong with Oxford Scholarship Online?


Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO) is the digital imprint for Oxford University Press, making available electronic versions of OUP books. According to Bob Pasnau (Colorado), they are terrible. His library started an OSO subscription and stopped purchasing hard copies of OUP books, and he has not been very happy.

For a great many purposes, I prefer to read material on screen, and I have accumulated the usual collection of programs and devices to facilitate that sort of thing. So my objection is not that OSO marks a prominent step on the path toward the end of books in academia. The problem is that what OSO offers, in place of OUP books, is, to be blunt, execrable….

OSO gives the reader something like an .html version of the book, one that looks nothing like the book itself, even if in principle it is a word-for-word duplicate. Their fear, presumably, is that if an exact digital version of the book were made available, it would soon become available everywhere for free. The worry is a reasonable one, but unfortunately their solution is to make their product so wretched that no one could possibly have any interest in circulating these OSO editions.

It sounds very frustrating, but Pasnau writes in such an amusing way as he substantiates his charges that it is quite fun to read about. His remarks about the lack of care with typography are spot on, and the part about the endnotes will make you cringe. You can read the whole post at his blog, In Medias Phil.

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Jonathan Weisberg
6 years ago

Amen. OUP produces some beautifully typeset books and articles, but their HTML-ified offerings are just heinous. In general, HTML publishing just isn’t yet at the point where it can compete, or even come close to, PDF publishing.

I’m curious about the hypothesis that this is part of a strategy to discourage piracy. OUP’s journals supply PDFs, apparently identical to the printed versions. Why would they worry about piracy of books but not of journals? Is it because sites like Bookfi.org don’t collect pirated journals? (f so, why is that… is demand for journal issues too diffuse compared to demand for books?)Report

Peter ohlin
6 years ago

It’s because journal revenue comes mostly from library subscriptions which are less affected by piracy. Books depend more on one-off purchases by libraries, individuals, and students, and thus pirated editions have an impact on sales.Report

Jonathan Weisberg
Reply to  Peter ohlin
6 years ago

I see; I’d always assumed libraries made the bulk of book purchases too, but apparently not. That leaves me puzzled on the other end though: why do OUP journals bother producing HTML versions of journal articles when they’re so often so severely inferior? Do they just happen to have the technology from the books side of things and figure, “why not?”?Report

anon grad
anon grad
6 years ago

Also, the search function of OSO is awful. On numerous occasions I’ve searched for terms that I was confident were in a book and had it return zero results. I even searched a book on Hume for the term “Hume” and got back three results.Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
6 years ago

I just want to point out that you all are complaining about a publishing platform that, while imperfect, allows you to access top notch scholarship almost anywhere in the world, at any time, probably on any device, including your phone. And, given that you all have university affiliations, this is free. In light of this, I think complaints about the lack of full justification and other issues that basically involve the aesthetics of the publication format are shamefully precious. It’s legitimate to complain about errata on OSO, and I’m sure anyone at OUP would be sympathetic and eager to fix them.Report

Anon reader
Anon reader
Reply to  Matt McAdam
6 years ago

I don’t think it’s precious to care about the way texts are presented, especially if institutions are treating access to the substandard online versions of books as a substitute for the actual books themselves. It’s convenient to be able to access texts electronically once in a while, but if it’s a choice between that and having access to philosophy in the form of well-produced books, then no thanks.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
6 years ago

I wonder if this approach is achieving its ends. My 2011 OUP book is available online, in a pirated edition which is much better looking and much more user friendly than the OSO version. Once such an edition escapes, there’s no getting rid of it. I have no idea how the pirates produced a pdf that is a good facsimile of the book, but I doubt they went to a lot of trouble (I’m not exactly a high value target). So the strategy is not preventing people producing pirated books that can be expected to lower sales.Report

Daniel Nagase
Daniel Nagase
Reply to  Neil Levy
6 years ago

In your case, what probably happened was that someone actually bought the pdf (which is available from, say, Blackwell’s for 30 pounds — I’m assuming you’re talking about Hard Luck), removed the DMR and posted it online. So the pirates didn’t need to produce the copy, they basically bought it from OUP itself (or a representative) and then “unlocked” it, so that the pdf copy could be freely distributed.Report