Image Credit: Michael Reeve, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Image Credit: Michael Reeve, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license

Nikhil Sonnad, a reporter for Quartz, has written a great article that details how the creators of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) have solved the problem of “how to provide authoritative, rigorously accurate knowledge, at no cost to readers.” The online SEP was launched in 1995 by Edward Zalta (Stanford’s Center for the Study of Language and Information). Zalta, in a paper written in 2002, succinctly stated the main challenge when providing information via 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.

This statement illustrates “if the goal is to share with people what is true, it is extremely important for a resource to have all of these things. The three requirements the authors list—’authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date’—are to information what the “impossible trinity” is to economics.”

Basically, where other encyclopedias fall short:

  • Printed books are authoritative, but not up-to-date, nor comprehensive
  • A crowdsourced online encyclopedia is timely, but not authoritative, nor comprehensive
  • The question-and-answer wiki, or “crowdsourced + voting” model is slightly more authoritative, but not as up-to-date, nor comprehensive

For the SEP to achieve authority, subject editors, responsible for broad areas, identify the topics that need to be covered. Qualified philosophers are then invited to write entries on those topics. An executive editorial board ensures that the encyclopedia is comprehensive. Each entry is expected to “contain the freshest possible information and research on a topic.” In four years, or earlier if needed, the author is expected to provide a new, updated entry.

Stanford pays for most of the costs. Contributors donate their time for several reasons, the main one being to simply “further the enterprise of philosophy by creating a place to better understand it.”