Oxford English Dictionary – the future

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Oxford English Dictionary – the future” was written by Cory Doctorow, for theguardian.com on Friday 23rd August 2013 12.58 UTC

I remember the first time I saw the Compact Oxford English Dictionary.

It came in a slipcase with a little drawer for its magnifying lens. We sold it at the academic bookstore in Toronto where I worked, and we kept a copy in the window. Whenever someone came in and plunked down over a hundred dollars for it, I always struck up a conversation about what a marvellous thing it was.

I’d seen the OED before then, of course. We had the 11-volume set in the English classroom in my high-school. I loved pulling down a copy and getting lost in it, browsing it for hours at stretch sometimes. I knew that there would come a day when I’d own this for myself.

Then came my adulthood, when I found myself moving, first cross-continent, then overseas and back – twice! – and I never felt rooted enough to invest in quite that much physical product. I toyed with buying various CD ROM editions, but never got to it, at first because it wouldn’t run on the OS I was using, then because I’d switched to subnotebooks without CD drives.

But two years ago, after finishing work on a novel, I bought both the Compact OED and the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary, which together constitute the canonical reference on the etymology and usage history of all the words in my mother tongue. I even installed a special magnifying lamp on my desk to make it easier to read them (I’d waited too long to buy the print editions, and by my 40th birthday, the official magnifying glass was insufficient aid for my aging eyes).

I spend a lot of time on the road, and for the most part, it doesn’t make a difference to my work. My life as a novelist started while I was starting a software company, and came into full throttle while I was the European Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and so for nearly a decade, I spent nearly all my time on the road. So it doesn’t matter where I am, really: so long as I have a writing implement and a minute or two, I can write. Sure, I miss the comforts of my office – the big monitor and separate mouse, the reliable Internet connection – but these are just luxuries, really. Not necessities.

But the OED and the HTOED have worked their way into my life and my writing. They have become necessities. The ability to delve so deeply into the sense and history of any word – every word – is habit-forming. Finally, I’ve found an undeniable difference between composing on the road and at home: the presence or absence of the most significant lexicographic references in the English language.

A couple of months back, it suddenly occurred to me that this was not an insurmountable hurdle. It had been at least five years since I’d looked at the digital editions of the OED, and now that we were living in the era of cheap ebook readers and ubiquitous smartphones and tablets, surely Oxford University Press would have ebook editions I could take with me when I was on the go. Judging on the pricing of the old CD ROM editions, I expected to pay something like the cost of the print books (more than £600 for the set) but I wasn’t daunted. Taken as a pair, the major OED reference works are to a writer what an anvil is to a blacksmith. Well worth the price.

It’s not academic

I hadn’t reckoned on the fact that Oxford University Press is an academic publisher, and the academic publishers aren’t like trade publishers. They have their own way of doing business – a model that has been the source of significant controversy in scholarly circles, but which has largely passed over the heads of the civilian population of non-scholarly readers.

OUP – which has been selling dictionaries and thesauri since the 19th century – will not sell you a digital OED or HTOED. Not for any price.

Instead, these books are rented by the month, accessed via the internet by logged-in users. If you stop paying, your access to these books is terminated.

I mentioned this to some librarians at the American Library Association conference in Chicago this spring and they all said, effectively: “Welcome to the club. This is what we have to put up with all the time.”

Academic, reference and research libraries have become accustomed to renting their access to journals and important reference works.

These services are called “subscriptions,” but the word “subscribe” has a new meaning for libraries. For hundreds of years, libraries that subscribed to periodicals got to keep them forever. When I worked in libraries, I was accustomed to shelving, repairing and circulating periodicals that stretched back decades – sometimes rebound in handsome almanacs, sometimes in archival formats like fiche or film, often in lovingly maintained original paper.

Libraries “subscribed” to periodicals the same way I did – and just as I got to keep my back-issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, so too could my local library retain its copies of important research journals forever.

To “subscribe” to a magazine was to purchase all the year’s forthcoming issues in advance. But for librarians, “subscriptions” are now effectively rental agreements. I’d known about this, but it didn’t hit home until I tried to buy the digital OED and HTOED. And it got under my skin.

Oxford University is famed for many things, but among people who care about books, it is celebrated for the Bodleian Library, a “deposit” library founded in the 14th century whose remit is to collect every scholarly work published in English and store it for the ages.

Librarians at the Bodleian have literally described their mission as safeguarding essential human knowledge for future civilisations. This mission of stewardship in enduring knowledge has always inspired me. It is indisputably noble, important, and wonderful. Every time I visit Oxford and pass by the Bodleian, my heart beats a little faster.

The Bodleian – indeed, the whole idea of archiving – is incompatible with a world of digital scholarship where renting is the only option.

Thus, two of Oxford’s most iconic institutions – its deposit library and its press’s flagship titles – have each embraced a model that the other has utterly rejected.

The dreaded fine print

If you’ve rented anything – a hire car, a flat, an office – you’ll know that rental agreements are generally tilted in favour of the owner, and away from the renter. The internet has extended this to every corner of our lives, in the form of endless licence-agreements that are written in a special poetry of unconscionability, rivers of fine print that set out all the ways in which you must surrender your privacy, your statutory rights, your right to redress, and every other right you possess as a condition of visiting websites; paying for music, games, videos, and ebooks; reading your email; and (of course) connecting to the internet in the first place.

The rental terms for the OED and other OUP rental services are about what you’d expect. The company reserves the right to retain your personal information – everything that goes into a credit-card validation, including your name, address and phone number – and to store every click and query you make while reading the book; as well as which IP address you visit the site from, and to link these things together. It reserves the right to retain this information indefinitely.

It reserves the right to disclose it to a long list of parties, including loosely defined “affiliates,” for a wide range of purposes, including equally nebulous concepts like “security.” And it reserves the right to treat this data as a company asset, and to sell it along with the company, should the publisher ever be sold on.

Taken together, these terms grant the publisher permission to track your movements, your interests, and even your personal relationships (if you log into the service from a friend’s IP address, say). They grant the company to disclose that information now or at any time in the future.

And they allow a third party to buy the company and change the terms under which the data has been gathered, to sell it piecemeal or to publish it.

In this regard, the digital editions of the OED and HTOED are no different from many other digital “products”. OUP’s terms are not the worst in the digital world, though they’re far from the best. What is exceptional is for these terms to be applied to the most significant reference books on the subject of the English language in the world.

It’s bad enough when this is imposed on scholars – who have always relied upon privacy and the right to choose when they publish as a condition of intellectual integrity. But OED and HTOED have substantial followings outside the academy, with readers whose ebooks may come larded with fine print but are at least sent to your device and are yours to own, without having to keep payments up, be connected to the internet, and stay on the right side of a one-sided licence “agreement.”

Two sides to a story

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think OUP has made the digital edition rent-only because they’re wicked or venal or money-hungry. When I spoke at length with Casper Grathwohl, OUP’s president of the dictionaries division, he struck me as a man of integrity and intelligence and devotion, who loves the press’s reference works even more than I do.

He set out lots of good reasons to rent access to reference works, such as the ability of readers to access up-to-the-minute revisions; and the ability of the press to track readers’ interests in its books so they’ll know where to focus future research efforts. He pointed out that a traditional “flat” ebook would not do justice to the material in the way that an indexed, searchable, cross-linked interactive version does.

I agree with him entirely. If I bought a digital edition of the OED, I’d want it to come bundled with a reader that added hyperlinks and advanced search – there are plenty of free/open technologies that run on all major operating systems that would fit the bill nicely. And if I bought the electronic version, I’d be sorely tempted by an annual subscription that kept it up-to-date, downloading fresh versions every now and again (or adding the option of searching OUP’s databases if I wanted to expand my queries to the most recent entries). But I’d want it to work offline, too, because I get a lot of writing done on airplanes and on trains where there is no internet. I’m not the only one, and there’s also a huge cohort of writers who help themselves focus by shutting off the internet altogether while they’re working.

And in OUP’s defence, they say that they limit their data-mining and data-retention in ways that are much more conservative than their rental terms allow. Usage logs are not correlated with users themselves, and it wouldn’t be simple to automate such a correlation. And they have no intention of selling the press, which has been part of the university for centuries.

Money matters

Finally, it’s undeniable that developing an offline version of the OED and HTOED would cost money and it’s not clear that such an effort would be the most profitable way to invest the press’s limited funds. And Grathwohl stressed that the press has no philosophical objection to offering an “offline” version of its reference titles (it already has offline versions of many of its lesser reference books, sold as apps).

But the point is that we have sleepwalked into a new way of accessing some very ancient tools. Commercial decisions married to the lawyerly norm of asking for the world, the moon, and your first-born in rental agreements have birthed a new, non-negotiable relationship between people who live and die by words and the lexicographers whose work serves them. A university whose name is synonymous with the perpetual archiving of books is now telling scholars that their crucial references can never be their property, and that their ongoing use of those works is subject to continuous monitoring and indefinite retention.

The relationship between scholars and the OED has been stood on its head. It used to be that you could buy the OED, and generate only one blip of data (“a copy has been sold”), and you could retain the book forever. You got infinite, perpetual, private access to the OED. Under the new rules, OUP gets perpetual, private, infinite access to your usage data, and you only get to use the OED for so long as you pay your fees.

The digital OED has many wonderful features, and is available for site-licensing to universities, schools and libraries – public libraries across the UK all have access to it, and OUP has no easy way of tracking individual library users’ access to the service.

Grathwohl is an articulate spokesman for the digital offerings, and I hope he represents the attitude across the press. It’s true that OUP is no worse than most academic publishers, but as Grathwohl mused, “We have large and uniform respect. Don’t we have a responsibility to be as equitable as possible, to set standards that others might use as a benchmark?”

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