Answers with authority: The relaunch of Oxford Reference

August 19, 2012

For more than 80 years, Oxford University Press has been proud to publish of some of the world’s most acclaimed and frequently-used reference works. Some of our earliest titles – such as the Oxford Companion to English Literature and the Oxford Classical Dictionary – have been thriving through many editions ever since. Over the years, we have built steadily on the reputation for research and scholarship established by the Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and we remain committed to providing the highest-quality reference content across a wide range of subjects. Millions of students, academics, and general readers around the world regularly look up a concise definition, check a fact, or consult a more extensive analysis of a topic as a springboard to further research, by using an Oxford subject reference work. However, the ways in which readers have found and used such information during these 80 years has changed almost beyond recognition. So I’d like to share with you some of the new ideas we’ve been working on to meet the new needs and expectations of reference users in 2012 – ideas that we are excited to present in the forthcoming relaunch of Oxford’s online reference service, which has been shaped throughout by advice from our readers and library partners.  
In 2003 we were amongst the first publishers to make our reference content available online. In doing so we made an important choice. Like many other reference publishers, we could have consigned all our work to large aggregations of online content from many sources. But we chose to produce our own online reference service, for several reasons. First, as always, were the essential values of quality and authority which people all over the world associate with Oxford University Press. Every Oxford title has been written by experts, commissioned and edited by experienced reference publishers, and approved by Oxford University academics. It was important to ensure that readers had a recognizable, trusted source for all this content in one place.
We continue to publish and manage Oxford’s reference content ourselves in every format possible. The second reason is that it allows us much greater control over the updating and consistency of our content. Expectations among digital reference users have changed: while many are still reaching beyond the confusing array of free resources to find something more reliable, they nonetheless want to find material that is both as current as possible, and rooted in a stable framework of higher-level research in a subject. So, in the essential first levels of reference, we are evolving our editorial programs. When we want to update a fact online we can do so quickly, without having to wait for a print edition. Meanwhile our higher-level academic reference works retain their stable, detailed coverage, edition by edition.
With the launch of our new Oxford Reference platform in 2012 you will see these approaches in practice. We are presenting our content in two main collections, Oxford Quick Reference and Oxford Reference Library, both integrated and cross-searchable in the same interface. Guided by feedback from users and librarians, our aim has been to create a much more flexible service: to clarify the levels of information available to readers, and to free up both our ability to refresh quick-reference content, and your library’s ability to shape its own collection by choosing titles individually from the larger Reference Library.
For our Quick Reference collection we chose around 125 dictionaries which provide concise and accessibly written entries for readers who want to quickly check a fact, or find out key details about a person, term, or concept, across a huge range of core subject areas from Art to Zoology. Being more factual than interpretive, this content dates quickly, and our team of more than 100 authors, experts, and OUP staff is focused on updating the content quickly and systematically, so that it provides current (and yet carefully vetted) quick results for a reader’s search query. We are embarking on a newly expanded programme of monthly updates between major releases, to improve the consistency of the dynamic content within this single Quick Reference product. If there is a new president, or the classification of a planet or plant has changed – we aim to update these facts across all the titles in the Quick Reference collection simultaneously, and on a rolling basis throughout the year (for subscription customers).
OUP also publishes a range of higher-level reference content which does not date as quickly – the more in-depth, specialist, and longer-entry content that will now be included in the Reference Library. These are available as ‘static’ titles which do not require such dynamic updating, and will therefore be available for outright purchase by libraries. This will enable you to customise your online reference provision from Oxford by choosing the subject areas where you need to expand and deepen the coverage offered by the core Quick Reference product. Meanwhile we will continue to publish new editions of the classic works in this range of Reference Library titles periodically.
Extensive research by OUP and librarians has shown that users are increasingly starting their research from the open web: they need both immediate context and vocabulary to shape their searching, and guidance on what is available to them from reliable sources. Oxford has made it a major priority to respond to these needs throughout our publishing, in close collaboration with libraries. As part of this we are opening up initial access to Oxford Reference with a range of freely available information.
·         All users will be able to see a basic landing page for every reference entry: this will show the first 20 words and source information, regardless of whether they have access to the full text. This enables them to see the whole picture; but their access to full text through a library will be highlighted, and instant filtering can show only those results.
·         We are making 270 new Timelines and a new collection of Essential Quotations free to all users.
·         More than 300,000 new Overview pages will also be freely available to all. Overviews are designed to get people started: based on a search term – ‘Milton’, ‘hyperinflation’, ‘China’ – Overviews provide a short piece of content about the search term and act as navigational guides around the topic within Oxford Reference, so that users can explore a selection of links to relevant entries and, increasingly, to other topics related to their initial search term.
Overviews and the other freely available features of the new Oxford Reference are the product of a major project by our language and data engineers to open up access to our content. Imagine Googling ‘discovery’ and following a result which takes you to an Oxford Reference Overview page for ‘Discovery’ where you find some basic definition of how the term is used, and then notice that you have access rights to more Oxford content – so can follow a link to a 4000 word reference entry on discovery in modern science, or perhaps one on discoveries in the Middle Ages. The Overview page will also reveal that ‘Discovery’ was a 1950s literary magazine and a US space shuttle – and provide links to Overviews of those other senses of the term. You’ve entered the world of Oxford reference content and your journey has begun.
Most journeys do not begin and end with reference information, however. People need reference at different stages of their research journey, while exploring other content, and this is where the range of Oxford’s publishing provides unique connections. Our Oxford Reference platform will link to a major new initiative, the Oxford Index, which allows users to see all of Oxford’s academic online content in one place – searching and browsing related content from scholarly monographs, major reference works, bibliographies and research guides, and journal articles. Reference content is at the hub of this ambitious Oxford program, linking between content of all types from Oxford and our publishing partners: we look forward to you joining us on this new journey of exploration and the exciting new research avenues that this opens up.
The new and enhanced linking, discovery tools, and carefully managed content will of course be supported by a fresh and user-friendly design and many more new features. There seems so much more to say, and we will keep you in touch with further details and developments. For now, I simply  hope that you will join us this year to discover the new Oxford Reference service for yourself – and see how decades of authoritative reference expertise is adapting for future generations of users.

Robert Faber
Editorial Director, Reference