Opinion

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy achieves impossible trinity of information

A 2002 paper1 describes the significant challenges of information access in the information age:

A fundamental problem faced by the general public and the members of an academic discipline in the information age is how to find the most authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date information about an important topic.

Writing in Quartz, Nikhil Sonnad argues that providing “authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date information” has been an impossible trinity for encyclopedias, but that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) delivers on all three. He illustrates his argument through a comparison of the SEP to other encyclopedias: printed books, crowdsourced online encyclopedia (Wikipedia), and crowdsourced online question-and-answer sites (for example Quora and StackOverflow).

The SEP was launched over 20 years ago, in 1995, has 1,500 entries, and is updated daily. It receives over a million page views each month, and is considered to compare in scope, depth and authority to the largest printed philosophy encyclopedias.

How other encyclopedias score

Printed books:

Authoritative – YES
Comprehensive – NO
Up-to-date – NO

Crowdsourced online encyclopedia (Wikipedia):

Authoritative – NO
Comprehensive – NO
Up-to-date – YES

Crowdsourced online question-and-answer sites (for example Quora and StackOverflow):

Authoritative – QUESTIONABLE
Comprehensive – NO
Up-to-date – QUESTIONABLE

The SEP solution

The SEP,  which has 1,500 fact-checked, peer-reviewed entries, is described as a “dynamic reference work”:

Authoritative – YES
Comprehensive – YES
Up-to-date – YES

To achieve authority, several dozen subject editors identify topics in need of coverage, and invite qualified philosophers to write entries on them. If the invitation is accepted, the author sends an outline to the relevant subject editors.

An executive editorial board works to make the SEP comprehensive. They steer the encyclopedia away from the “wiki-hole” of having to open endless Wikipedia pages defining jargon in order to understand the topic at hand. Authors are told to try to write an entry that is self-contained.

To make sure content is up-to-date, a new entry is expected to contain the freshest possible information and research on a topic. As soon as it is published, the clock starts ticking on a new deadline. In exactly four years, or earlier if research has moved on significantly, the author must again hand in the most up-to-date entry on the topic. In effect, therefore, each entry is on its own publishing schedule.

Other benefits of the SEP model include giving the encyclopaedia an “authorial voice”, and that minority views get more exposure.

Financial arrangements

Stanford pays for the operating costs of the SEP, but these are kept to a minimum because authors and subject editors are unpaid. The authors and editors appear happy with this arrangement, but it means that some entries can take a long time.

Wider application

The SEP is likely too rigorous to be the standard against which all information online is compared, and Wikipedia and other platforms such as StackOverflow have their place. But it shows we can create many more places that explain clearly the things humans know to be true, with potential application to topics such as computer science or economics.

Reference:

  1. Allen, C., Nodelman, U. and Zalta, E. N. (2002), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Developed Dynamic Reference Work. Metaphilosophy, 33: 210–228. doi: 10.1111/1467-9973.00225

Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes (www.bruceboyes.info) is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (www.realkm.com), and a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and project management consultant. He holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction, and his expertise and experience includes knowledge management (KM), environmental management, project management, stakeholder engagement, teaching and training, communications, research, and writing and editing. With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee an award-winning $77.4 million western Sydney river recovery program, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support the sustainable management of landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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