Oxford University Press: how it has maintained its standards

The Oxford University Press today, in its philosophy, editorial policy, and its major product - books - combines dedication to high academic standards with an open-mindedness to new ideas and a pioneering spirit regarding new technologies. It seems to thrive on the varied points of view and distinctly different personalities of its upper-level staff.

In three articles we will take a look at the elusive standards behind the prestigious Oxford University and Clarendon Press imprints, the manner in which the press has survived the recession without compromising its standards, and the directions the press is taking under the leadership of editors with diverse style and philosophy. Finally, a fourth article will focus on the press's New York branch and investigate the role of Oxford University Press as an international company.

R.A. Denniston, who holds the title of academic and general publisher, points to the new style of endpapers in many Oxford books as symbolic of Oxford University Press today. ''On them we've put a skyline of Oxford,'' Mr. Denniston says. ''The design shows the traditional spires and domes, but it shows the science block as well, because Oxford is now very science-oriented in many ways. So it's not just the old; it's also the new.

''We're very conscious of the Oxford tradition and we're trying to keep it alive and kicking. . . . It is administered by the university through delegates of the press, who are about 15 very senior members of the university. Their committee, chaired by the vice-chancellor, decides all matters to do with the press. I think concern with maintaining standards is absolutely the crucial thing with the delegates and we rely on them totally for that.

''Our overall objectives are to publish the fruits of first-class scholarship , both in journal form and book form. We like to think we make available to scholars the work of other scholars,'' despite the fact that ''quite often their ideas are important to only a few people who are their academic peers. We publish a great many scholarly monographs of which we know we will sell only 400 copies! They will almost all go to university research libraries, where they will be read by those few but very important people for whom they're published. So the publishing of scholarly work is self-validating as long as the scholars you publish are world class.''

It is difficult, however, to get an Oxford man to put his finger on just what the Oxford standard is. Denniston explains: ''I think I understand what the press should be publishing, which is what the university wishes it to publish. And, as I am a graduate of the university and I am to some limited extent a part of the university, I think I can reflect university priorities.''

Richard Charkin, deputy publisher in charge of the dictionary department, takes a more relaxed view of Oxford standards. ''I think the word 'scholarly' is overused,'' he says. ''Yes, we'd be terribly upset if we published rubbish, but really our job is simply a function of getting, from the writer to the reader as quickly as possible, information. We always call our dictionaries 'scholarly.' I don't know what that means.''

Mr. Charkin would prefer to call his dictionaries ''scientific.'' He cites James A.H. Murray, the first editor of ''The Oxford English Dictionary,'' who wrote, ''I am not a literary man; I am a man of science. I am interested in that branch of anthropology which deals with the history of human speech.''

Says Charkin, this is ''a most perceptive remark. People get carried away sometimes with the scholarship of dictionaries. Actually they're a lot simpler than that. I mean they may be very complicated to put together and they take a lot of work and all the rest of it, but you're starting at 'A' and ending at 'Zed' and you're doing a scientific study.''

But Charkin has a keen eye for quality. ''I can look at a manuscript or proposal and say, almost instinctively, this is or is not good of its kind. If we do our job properly, our books are good. One of the nice things about working for Oxford University Press is that you can actually do great things!''

Once the manuscript is accepted for publication, other standards are maintained. Denniston asserts, ''The reader can expect, with a few unfortunate exceptions, that an Oxford University Press book is accurate, important from the scholarly point of view, and well produced. We have very high production standards. We don't necessarily have sewn bindings, but in fact we have some technology here in our own printing works which produces a binding actually quite as strong as sewn. The paper we buy is always of high quality, as is the cloth. We use strong millboard and the best gold. We really don't skimp as far as production goes, and I may say that we've been able to not skimp all through the recession.''

Our next article in this series will show how Oxford maintained its high standards of scholarship and quality even during tough economic times.

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