How Philosophers at Stanford Have Mastered the Online Encyclopedia

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If you haven't studied philosophy, you've probably never heard of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but that doesn't mean the compendium isn't relevant to your interests. In fact it's extremely relevant, especially if you've ever looked anything up on an internet encyclopedia. As Quartz reports, the SEP has accomplished something few reference guides have: Unlike printed books and online references like Wikipedia, it's simultaneously authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date, achieving a so-called “impossible trinity of information.”

While crowd-sourced encyclopedias like Wikipedia tend to have up-to-date information, and a wide range of entries, they’re neither comprehensive (some topics are significantly more detailed than others) nor authoritative. There’s limited oversight regarding who writes what, and the majority of entries are not written by professionals. Print reference books, meanwhile, present the opposite challenge: They’re written by professionals, but the moment new information comes out, they’re rendered incomplete.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, meanwhile, strikes a balance between these two poles: Unlike Wikipedia, it’s written by experts in the field of philosophy; unlike a print encyclopedia, it’s continuously updated. Periodically, Stanford identifies experts in specific fields, and requests that they provide entries for the encyclopedia. There’s a peer review process, and even once an entry is published, writers—who are providing entries without payment, for the pure devotion to philosophy—are responsible for keeping them up-to-date.

While that process might sound like common sense, it’s actually pretty revolutionary. Quartz explains that few online information resources have managed to achieve that same level of quality and comprehensiveness. However, that may be because the SEP had a significant head start: It’s actually been around since 1995 (Wikipedia was founded in 2001), when it launched with two entries, and its creator, Edward Zalta, has been refining the information acquisition process since then. Zalta hopes that the SEP could eventually serve as a model for other online information resources, including Wikipedia. All you need to succeed, he claims, is people willing to work hard. “What we had was several people single-mindedly focused on making this work,” he told Quartz. “I think our model could be reproduced if you get the right people involved.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is an essential resource, not only for philosophers, but for anyone interested in the future of internet information. It's full of beautifully written articles on everything and everyone from aesthetics to zombies, Aristotle to Zhuangzi, and was designed to make philosophy accessible to anyone. "If you're a member of the public, you have the greatest chance of interacting with philosophy via the SEP than via any other academic project," Zalta said in a statement. Visit the website to learn more. 

[h/t Quartz]