Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Oxford Reference Online

A user review of the Oxford University Press reference site by Pete Dowdell.

In March of this year Oxford University Press unveiled their online reference site. Called the core collection, it comprises of around 100 reference works in print, collated into a coherent single body with well-integrated cross-searching facilities. It has been developed as a joint project between the two halves of the OU organisation, in Oxford and in the USA.

The range of material covered is vast, the scope is huge. The material on offer covers a wide range of reference titles: dictionaries, subject references, quotations and so forth. It all adds up to over 1.5 million entries. The validity of this body of work as a supreme reference is not in doubt and a web interface to this information is surely the most efficient and powerful means to access it.

However this power does not come cheap. With development costs exceeding £1million and the online world in a much more sober and rational phase, the crucial question for this site is going to be whether the subscription model will work.

Subscriptions are made available in three basic forms: Concurrent, unlimited and school licenses. For small organisations and companies, the concurrent model will likely be chosen. In the smallest case, a single freelance worker requiring access to this kind of reference will be asked to pay £250 per year, or about £20 per month. Note, this is a concurrent license so this could be used by a larger group of workers, but they would only be able to access the site one at a time. Access is controlled by a login authentication, so the system will accept the number of logins requested. Athens single sign-on authentication is also supported.

£600 buys a license for 2-5 concurrent users and additional users thereafter are charged £100.

Larger organisations are likely to opt for an unlimited subscription model…prices are not structured and one must request a quote for this model.

Schools are favoured with a special license for £175 per year.

Whilst the subscriptions look expensive from a web user perspective, the real comparison is against the cost of maintaining a hardcopy set of the works. To purchase the full set of 100 books would surely approach £2000, and the online version is of course automatically updated. Still, at these prices, they are clearly targeting institutional users. I assume that they concluded there simply wasn't the user base to support the individual user, what with the range of free web-based references available.

The site is well designed. They have avoided a standard template feel and have achieved a fresh and individual look. The navigation controls are laid out in two horizontal rows, which is quite logical but it took me a while to get used to it. The top row controls overall site navigation and the lower row navigates within the current section. The page colours change as you move from one section of the site to the next. It all takes some getting used to, but as this is a site that people will come back to again and again, they will learn to appreciate this navigation.

Several paths are provided for accessing lookups. There is a basic and advanced search interface. Users can also drill down past subject areas, to a specific reference work. Keyword look-up is available on words in the description, and the general level of metadata around any entry is full and useful.

The default quick search will perform an "OR" search on all the terms entered. Phrasing with quotation marks is allowed, and derivative words are also searched. Access to the quick search interface is provided on every page.

The chunkier advanced search offers several useful settings without overwhelming the user. Three basic modes of operation are offered. In standard mode it functions like the quick search, except that you can narrrow your inquiry over a subset of the 24 subject areas. A Boolean search is provided, allowing you to include AND, OR, NOT terms. Finally, pattern searching is available. This will find exact and similar matches to your search term(s), allowing you to enter guesses of the spelling of unfamiliar terms. Wildcards are supported in any kind of search with 4 meta characters supported: *(zero or more characters), ?(one character, # (single digit) and @ (single alphabet character). Further refinement is also provided by an option to restrict the search over full text, the entry headings, dates or people.

Whichever way the search is accessed, the results are displayed in the same consistent manner. Results are returned with a relevance score and the list ranking can be modified by relevance, alphabetic order, by subject or by book. The number of results returned can be set ( 10, 25, 50, 75 or 100 per page) and the results list is accompanied by a list of Subjects that returned matches for the searched term, allowing the user to drill into results listed by subject and then, once within the subject area, by book.

Each hit returns the term found, a truncated description and the reference work from which it was found. Clicking through on any particular result brings up the full term definition page, where any search terms will marked up as red in the text - in fact, in one of two shades of red to indicate the strength of the match. Any word in the descriptive text that matches other reference terms are marked as links, allowing you to jump straight to its definition. A citation link is also provided, but this link is only accessible to logged-in users, limiting its usefulness. Within the context of a search, extra navigation is provided on the definition page to allow you to step forward or back through your results without having to hit the back button to return to the list.

During the two month period that I spent testing the site, I was consistently pleased by the response time of the searches, and the general performance of the site.

A browse interface is also supported. This allows you to view a full listing of all terms in the database. You can restrict your browsing to within the scope of a subject area or just one book. You start to get a feeling for the colossal size of this reference when you browse alphabetically through the entire collection. For example, you will have to get to the third page of terms under the letter "M" just to find a word that isn't just "m" of one form or another!

Links to other quality resources on the web have been provided for each book in the collection, giving access to a huge wealth of associated information.

A very well written help section is also provided, with very clear instructions on all aspects of site usage. Further support is available through a contact form on the site.

Heavy users of the OED, online or on CD, will be disappointed to learn that this reference work is not included in the package. At present, you will have to pay again for the ORO subscription. This separation of the two products strikes me as strange and I look forward to hearing of their integration in the near future - possibly as a premium on basic subscription.

The quality of the service itself is beyond doubt. This is a hugely impressive resource, endlessly absorbing to browse, weaving fascinating wide-ranging journeys across science, history, society, culture and philosophy. But what will be interesting is to watch how this site stands the business test. There are compelling arguments for organisations to switch from maintaining a physical reference library but these have to play against the entrenched attitude of the internet that everything should be free. The absence of advertising is refreshing, at least, for the user experience. These are big subscription fees but this is also a very serious offering.

Oxford Reference Online is at: http://www.oxfordreference.com/

Author Details

Pete Dowdell
Email p.dowdell@ukoln.ac.uk