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A good idea of the current position of reference publishing from a publisher’s perspective could be seen from a seminar on reference publishing (21 March 2012), at University College, London (part of the Digital Publishing Forum series), conceived and chaired by Anthony Watkinson, looked at changes in reference publishing over the last decade.

There were three presentations, from Oxford University Press, Credo Reference, and Encyclopaedia Britannica. Enough, in other words, to cover all bases from publishing to delivery (and sometimes combining both).  Robert Faber of OUP described briefly the flagship reference products, the DNB and the OED, and revealed some fascinating statistics, for example that online now comprises some 90% of total reference revenue. Even more surprising is that total revenue for reference doubled between 2000 and 2010 – not many publishers active in print in 2000 could say anything remotely similar.

Anne Kail of Credo Reference described how Credo, founded as recently as 1999, has moved increasingly to be a channel provider via the public libraries that make up a large part of its subscriber base. The screenshots gave an excellent demonstration of findability, as the Credo service enabled the library to bring its resources together in a way that the expensive aggregation services such as Summon or EBSCO Discovery do for academic libraries.  Her presentation revealed how closely linked reference publishing is to discoverability, a point taken up later by Robert Faber.

One of the major changes in the last ten years is the extent to which libraries have started to provide online content to their users. A very pertinent question asked why it was that libraries could provide so much content and yet for that provision to be so little noticed. Anne Kail suggested it was because the library pages are so often buried  within a local authority website, with little attention to SEO and to findability. Yet even here it is possible for publishers to make an impact: both Britannica and Credo reported running training sessions and setting up services by which libraries could demonstrate usage of their online content.

Overall,  there was of course something lacking from the event. The absence of any voice from Wikipedia meant that much of the session (Credo excepted) consisted of slightly defensive justification of the continued existence of publisher-based reference publishing. Words such as “confidence “ and “brand” were widely used by the speakers, as if they were the key criteria by which users measure reference content validity, and of course Wikipedia has proved that reference publishing can exist without either. Robert Faber pointed out how the Web tends to funnel business into very large organisations that swamp or remove all competition – the all-or-nothing model: Wikipedia is one, but Facebook and Amazon are others.

For much of the Britannica and OUP sessions, a listener could be forgiven for thinking this presentation could  have been given ten years ago.  A truly innovative note was introduced, however, by Robert Faber, when he talked about  “discoverability” (and could have spoken much more on this point.  For me, the most impressive part of the Credo and OUP sessions were about the steps they were taking to increase discoverability of content  – in the case of OUP, their own content, but in the case of Credo, the content of many publishers.)

While reference and dictionaries at OUP appear to make up around only 15% of total academic turnover, their importance in the scheme of things was apparent when Faber  described his role as “head of discoverability” (an interesting job title to explain at parties).  For the tail to wag the dog, in that reference publishing provides the findability for the entire academic publishing operation at OUP, indicates its continuing importance.  It reveals how reference publishing is important not simply for the content it provides but also for the role it plays in the user journey of the reader. All the emphasis on usability from web design over the last ten years has simply played to the strengths of reference publishing, since reference publishing is about discovery and findability as much as anything else. It is in this area, surely, where reference publishing will focus in the future.