The Evils of OSO

I have come to the conviction over the summer that the field of Philosophy, and academic publishing more broadly, faces a dire threat — one that, so far as I can find, hardly anyone has taken notice of. I refer to the evils of Oxford Scholarship Online.

In case you have had the good fortune not to have had any dealings with OSO, let me explain that this is OUP’s idea of how to make its books available in digital format to institutions and individuals who are willing to subscribe to such a service. Last year, my library (at CU/Boulder) made the decision to sign up, and this seemed like quite a good thing at the time, inasmuch as it means we get electronic access to all OUP books (at any rate, all of them published after the starting date of our subscription). Right away, however, we received the grim news that, with our OSO subscription in place, our library would no longer be purchasing OUP books (except by special request), meaning that our only access to OUP materials would be digitally, through OSO.

Still, we thought, perhaps this is on balance a good thing. It has become very clear, however, that the decision was disastrous.

Now I am no Luddite – indeed, 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.

The heart of the problem, as anyone who has used OSO will know, is that Oxford is unwilling to make images of their published books available. So instead of the usual .pdf file that we are all familiar with receiving in place of printed journal articles, 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.

To make things more vivid, let me concentrate on the last two works that I read using OSO, a recent paper in epistemology by Jane Friedman and a recent book on Hume by Frederick Schmitt. I might instead have talked about anything I have ever read on OSO, since the problems that I will describe are endemic to the system. But these two will do.

Here is a screenshot of what the printed OUP version of Friedman’s article looks like (ignore the highlighting):

friedman oup

Now here is a screenshot of the OSO version:

friedman oso

The first thing to remark on is just how horribly ugly the OSO version is. There was a time when Oxford University Press cared deeply about the art of printing, maintained high standards of typesetting, and took pride in decisions about fonts and other aesthetic niceties. The printed version of Friedman’s article reflects those traditions in ways we have come to take for granted from serious presses. How is it, then, that one of the world’s great publishing houses can now care so little about all that as to give us something as wretched as what we see here from OSO? Are they, for instance, incapable of right-justifying the margins, or do they just not care? Did they deliberately choose the ugliest possible mixture of fonts? Why all that extraneous numerical and legal information? Why on earth are there distracting OUP “watermarks” stamped all over the page?

If this were just a handy, searchable supplement to the book, to be consulted only as a temporary stand-in for the real thing, then these complaints might not matter. But in my part of the world this is the main form in which OUP publications are available. And I am not alone. In the past, when I could not get an OUP book from my own library, I could almost always get it from a consortium of libraries in the Colorado area. But with respect to both of the books I have mentioned, a search of the consortium reveals that not a single library in the Colorado area owns a copy of these books. The only versions available are the electronic versions.

If only this were the end of the story. Matters get even worse when we look at more substantive matters. Notice, for one thing, how the book gives us footnotes, whereas in the OSO version these become endnotes. Apparently, footnotes are another thing that the technical whizzes at OSO are incapable of. But the difference matters. Careful authors find out whether their work is to published with footnotes or endnotes, and treat the two differently. (Moreover, OSO does not even bother to supply hyperlinks making it possible to flip back and forth from text to note, meaning that one must laboriously scroll forward and hunt down each note, then scroll back. Then repeat.)

Notice, too, how it is impossible to tell where Friedman’s article begins, in the OSO version. For reasons quite unclear to me, it is an obsession at OSO to collect abstracts and keywords not just of whole books, but even of individual chapters within books. Now you might suppose that, if an author thinks such information belongs at the start of her work, then she will supply that information herself. Not at OSO. Here every chapter to every book has stuck onto it at the start an abstract – maybe written by the author herself, or maybe not, maybe cranked out in two minutes before heading off to teach a class, based on vague memories of what the chapter says – and formatted in such a way that the innocent reader has no way of knowing that this is not in fact a part of the author’s text.

At least here we are given the author’s name. I have seen books where that has been omitted, and for some reason these OSO versions never seem to provide the number of the chapter, something that obviously matters when you are trying to read the chapters of a book in the correct sequence. It was in fact not easy to find Friedman’s chapter in the book, because for some reason the front page of the OSO version provides only the title of each chapter, not the authors’ names. Moreover, even stranger, the OSO version omits the table of contents where the authors’ names are listed in the book, so that a reader who wants to know who has written the thirteen chapters in this book has to hunt that information down chapter by chapter.

Friedman’s article contains a fair number of technical notations, and I was impressed with how much success OSO had at converting these into its proprietary ugly font. Or, at any rate, into some font or another. One thing that one sees over and over is that, although the OSO version is converted straight-over from the final printed version, the conversion process is often shaky at best. On page 65, for instance, Friedman gives us the formula 0 < x y < 1, which in the printed version looks as it should. But for some reason in the OSO version that comes out as this:


Similar infelicities abound, thoughout. Usually, the reader can make sense of what is going on, but is this really the best Oxford can do?

Alas, Friedman’s case looks like a glowing success next to Schmitt’s new book on Hume. As before, superfluous material has been added in front of each chapter. But in this case Schmitt had his own ideas about the sorts of overviews he wanted to prefix at various places, and so the book is very carefully split into three Divisions, with a brief “preview of the Divisions” and then brief “previews” of each individual division. These are to be found in the OSO version, but the reader is unlikely in fact to find them, because the first is printed as if it were part of Chapter 1, and the others are hidden away as separate files that the OSO-user is very unlikely to discover. Only someone in possession of the book itself will understand how Schmitt himself wanted to introduce its various chapters.

There’s worse. As before, footnotes have become endnotes, but the really amazing thing here is that the notes have been mangled in a way that makes them virtually unusable. In the very first chapter, the reader is presented with two endnotes assigned the number 1, and two more endnotes assigned the number 2. What’s going on? A reader fortunate enough to be able to consult the book itself (or someone less fortunate, like me, who teases this information out of the Google online preview) will learn that in fact these doubled notes have been somehow imported from other chapters. The first doubled note comes from Chapter 2. The doubled second note comes all the way from Chapter 7. This goes on and on – there are actually 3 versions of notes 22, 27, 31, 33, 34, and then at the end there’s a note 85, following directly after note 65, that somehow got imported from Chapter 2. Here’s just a taste of what it looks like:


Subsequent chapters are just as bad, and indeed for good measure there are 87(!) pages of random notes stuck onto the end of the book, after the index – don’t ask me where these came from!

How can things be so bad? How can the world’s leading academic press be churning out material of such shameful quality? The essence of the problem is that – as every author knows – it takes a great deal of hard work to create elegant, carefully produced volumes. I myself have published several volumes with OUP, and have always been pleased with how the books have come out, but it has happened only at the end of a very long process involving a great deal of hard work by many hands. With OSO, almost none of that happens. In particular, at least in my experience, authors are never asked to look at the OSO version of their books, and judging from Schmitt’s book, no one else looks closely at them either. (In my case, not only was I never asked to look at the OSO versions, but in fact I have no access to them, so I am blissfully ignorant about how bad they might be!)

The solution, of course, cannot be for authors to go through two production processes, one for the book and one for the OSO version. As published authors know, one such process is agony enough. So the ultimate problem is that OUP is trying to do something that just will not work – it is trying to produce two versions of a book at the cost and effort it takes to produce one. The results are predictably appalling. But we should keep in mind what I said at the outset, that this is, for OUP, ultimately the whole point. The OSO version of a book is supposed to be something that is so markedly inferior to the printed version that it will not pose any commercial threat to the sale of printed books. This is what scholars and librarians need to understand. And if we care at all about the production values of the books we love, we need to stop letting Oxford get away with this.


Back to work

Although it’s still August, for most places in North America it’s back to school time, and accordingly I’m resuming my nearly two-year-old attempt to write weekly posts on subjects pertaining to medieval philosophy. As always, I’m grateful for any email suggestions regarding noteworthy material. Next up, however, is something unusual for me — indeed, something that goes against the stated policy of this blog — a rant. It is, moreover, not even a specifically medieval rant, though it is relevant to our community too. So there’s something to look forward to, or perhaps avoid, in a day or so.