Where can one find the best academic analyses of ageing and alcohol problems, Aristophanes and Augustine, capital punishment and cybercrime, Islamic education and ethics?
It is precisely to provide a route through the vast jungle of sources that Oxford University Press recently launched its series of Oxford Bibliographies Online (OBO) with four modules on Classics, criminology, Islamic studies and social work.
Three more - on Atlantic history, philosophy, and the Renaissance and Reformation - are now available, with 50 more planned over the next five years.
"We spent almost two years on extensive market research into research needs in an age of digital overload," said Casper Grathwohl, vice-president and reference publisher at OUP. "People consistently said they were drowning in scholarly material, sifting through the databases. More and more scholarly material is bypassing traditional outlets, but who is saying if it's any good? The idea behind Oxford Bibliographies Online was to have scholars create focused research guides, almost like literature reviews, which would be incredibly useful as orientation for someone embarking on a research project."
The modules all have their own editors-in-chief and editorial boards. They are divided into about 50 entries, each the responsibility of a separate editor, with brief introductions setting out the basic "shape" of the field. As with a monograph or journal article, the finished text is always peer-reviewed.
These entries are then further subdivided as appropriate. So "white-collar crime" (in the criminology module) includes an annotated list of introductory works, general overviews and data sources, followed by more focused studies of definitional issues, corporate crime, women and white-collar crime, theoretical perspectives, costs and control.
Each entry has an average of 150 citations, linked to the global library catalogue WorldCat. Individual articles or volumes are given brief descriptions such as "findings from a national survey of individuals (in households) that tracks experiences with white-collar crime victimisation, reporting behaviours and perceptions of crime seriousness".
The initial 50 or so entries in each module will be reviewed at least once a year to add new sources and to ensure they remain up to date. But they will also constantly be extended, with the addition of 50 to 75 new entries each year.
Richness, depth and nuance
All this requires a careful balancing act. While the information in each module must be comprehensive enough to be useful from the outset, Mr Grathwohl said he hoped it would subsequently be made "deeper and richer".
"We have already covered all the major topics within each discipline, although coverage will become more nuanced," he said.
Dee Clayman, professor of Classics at City University New York and editor-in-chief of the Classics module on OBO, said: "We began with the most basic topics, so there is coverage of major authors and important disciplines such as Greek art, Roman law and Greek history in large strokes. We meant to lay a foundation for topics that leap across authors and traditional genres, which will be added later.
"Our first updates will fill some of the most glaring gaps in the basic coverage, and then we will consider more specialised topics. There is no limit on the number of new entries that can be added. The OBO will grow and change as the field grows and changes. Here a database has a huge advantage over a printed volume. Each author adds material until he or she is satisfied that they have done justice to the topic."
Keeping the bibliography up to date would be the biggest challenge, she said. It would even be possible to rewrite a whole entry if some new work came out that "turned everything on end" - but, she added, "in Classics that is unlikely to happen very often".
While some disciplines may be relatively harmonious, others touch more closely on life-and-death issues and are dogged by ferocious debates.
So why did OUP include in its first four OBOs Islamic studies, where it seems highly unlikely that a judicious overview will ever be acceptable to everybody?
"We picked Islamic studies because Oxford is already strong there," Mr Grathwohl said.
"In a very political area, it is even more important to draw attention to the core sources. The bibliographies can distinguish academically sound works on Islam from those with strong social or political agendas."
OBO is available to university libraries for purchase (with the first three years of updates provided automatically) or on subscription.