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Information overload is a tricky thing. We struggle to avoid it, manage it, control it, diminish it, but often we generate even more information while wrestling it to the ground, adding to the problem we were seeking to solve.

Superiority is also a tricky thing. We can assert it, but often we’re surprised at what users really value. Is it authority? Simple presentation? Bullet points? Workflow simplicity? Low price?

Oxford University Press (OUP) might find itself on the downside of both these aspirations with its new initiative, Oxford Bibliographies Online, which ArsTechnica has dubbed the “anti-Google.”

The OBO tool is essentially a straightforward, hyperlinked collection of professionally-produced, peer-reviewed bibliographies in different subject areas—sort of a giant, interactive syllabus put together by OUP and teams of scholars in different disciplines.

OUP is betting that the authority and trust of their peer-reviewed bibliographical lists will prove valuable enough to scholars — owing to their efficiency and, again, authority (a word OUP uses often to describe the initiative) — that the $295 per year subscription price (0r $29.95 per month) will be worth it.

While people can argue whether full-fledged journals are worth charging for, this initiative hopes that even peer-reviewed lists or directories can be valuable enough to charge for. Commentary and context, as well as OPAC linking, add to the utility of the lists.

The problem may be that other sources of synthesized, distilled information may satisfy users for much less money.

Proprietary, branded information still has a major place in the world, but proprietary, branded lists with brief snippets of context? That seems a bit thin.

Yesterday, I complained that author-pays, bulk-publishing initiatives are threatening to turn journals into directory services. Now, OUP seems to be offering a directory service for a fee. And it’s one that’s easily matched by other resources. For instance, take a look at nearly any list of references for a good Wikipedia entry. Talk about a great (and commonly used) entry point for research, and one that’s free, even more deeply and broadly contextualized, and pretty sufficiently peer-reviewed.

One technique OBO seems to be employing to reduce the immediate downside of being copied is to prevent Google from indexing its lists. That’s appropriate, especially if you’re immediately dubbed the anti-Google. Frequent updates are another technique being employed to maintain interest and hold value.

A video shows the inner workings of OBO.

Superiority is in the eye of the beholder. Whether the branding of OUP combined with the branding of the scholars involved combined with peer-review combined with a nicely organized interface is enough to command a $295 annual price remains to be seen. But given effective alternatives like Wikipedia and Google, it’s hard to see how OBO will achieve financial success through subscription sales alone.

Despite aspirations to filter, it’s interesting that the marketers of OBO boast about the quantities in this filtration system:

  • “Each subject launches with over 50 entries (equivalent to a 4-volume print encyclopedia)”
  • “Over 500,000 words”
  • “More than 8,000 citations”

With an approach based on more words and more entries and more citations, OBO only adds to the problem it’s attempting to solve — it adds information (“a 4-volume print encyclopedia”) to the information environment.

Clay Shirky once claimed that information overload wasn’t the problem — it was “filter failure.” Yet when publishers respond with filters that are really 500,000 words of more information, perhaps the failure is in our appreciation of how to build a filter in the modern, networked world.

It’s not with more words. It’s with more filtering.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


1 Thought on "Is OUP’s “Anti-Google” Just a Half-Million Words of Filter Failure?"

Wow, I can’t believe this product is being launched in this day and age. In a period where we have the technical ability to create sophisticated content filters and aggregators – OUP are basically digitizing a print encyclopaedia?

I would point out that although Wikipedia reference lists do offer a free alternative to this service -OUP is aiming at humanities and social sciences where anecdotal evidence (read: three professors I know) suggests there is a slightly irrational distrust and even dislike of Wikipedia – usually from the misunderstood notion of the editing process and typically triumphantly declared with the statement “well my(<10)year old son/daughter/young close relative could edit a wikipedia entry, ergo we shouldn't trust any of them."

Completely agree with the point that this adds to the literature and consequential drain on the time of academics.

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