Wikipedia’s Rival, And What It Teaches Us About Expanding Human Knowledge

As many of you know, I am a big fan of, and regular contributor to, Wikipedia. I love it as much for its immense breadth information as for its ambitious mission to help make the entirely of human knowledge accessible to all. But I also absolutely love another website with a similarly audacious goal; the only encyclopedia that actually gives Wikipedia a run for its money when it comes to being an accessible and reliable source: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Spanning almost 1,500 entries, the SEP manages a respectable one million views a month, which as Quartz writer Nikhil Sonnad notes, is quite an achievement, “given how many entries there are with titles like Tibetan epistemology and philosophy of language or Peirce’s theory of signs.” According to the American Library Association, it is “comparable in scope, depth and authority” to the biggest philosophy encyclopedias in print. And did I mention that it is free?

Most crucially, the SEP has managed to accomplish the one thing that Wikipedia struggles with most of all: being a consistent and reliable source on all the topics it covers (although in fairness, Wikipedia spans a lot more pages and materials — close to five million in its English edition alone).

To achieve authority, several dozen subject editors—responsible for broad areas like “ancient philosophy” or “formal epistemology”—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.

This is not somebody randomly deciding to answer a question on Quora. “An editor works with the author to get an optimal outline before the author begins to write,” says Susanna Siegel, subject editor for philosophy of mind. “Sometimes there is a lot of back and forth at this stage.” Editors may also reject entries. Zalta and Uri Nodelman, the SEP’s senior editor, say that this almost never happens. In the rare cases when it does, the reason is usually that an entry is overly biased. In short, this is not somebody randomly deciding to answer a question on Quora.

An executive editorial board—Zalta, Nodelman, and Colin Allen—works to make the SEP comprehensive. They steer the encyclopedia away from the “wiki-hole”—having to open endless Wikipedia pages defining jargon in order to understand the topic at hand. “We tell our authors to try to write an entry that is self-contained,” Nodelman explains.

Of course, it’s not just single entries that have to be comprehensive, but the encyclopedia as a whole. The board sees to this too, looking for cases where one long entry should be split up, or where one should absorb another. “We had an entry on brains in a vat, but that was subsumed by ‘skepticism and external content,’” Nodelman adds (in easily the most philosophy-department line I’ve heard since earning my bachelor’s degree). Subject editors help with this as well, by identifying areas that deserve more attention and soliciting writers.

Can something so thorough be up-to-date? The editors have ways to make sure that it is.

 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. “This is the only rational way to somehow keep track of all of the arcane topics out there,” adds Zalta. “We are processing updates and changes daily,” says Nodelman. An ever-changing What’s New page shows the SEP revisions and additions for each day.

In essence, the SEP is the anti-Wikipedia, relying not on crowdsourcing and consensus, but on a select few individuals with outsized expertise and authority, who carefully monitor each and every change. This is of course not to say that Wikipedia does not rely on experts as well; many of its entries are recognized for being well-cited and of professional encyclopedic quality. But its model is much more dependent upon a massive and often transient number of volunteers to weigh in based on their own variable standards of research, writing style, and expertise (though contrary to popular belief, Wikipedia is quite scrutinizing of every change that is made).

This authorial voice also avoids the tendency of crowdsourcing to be unhelpfully uncontroversial. For a long time, Wikipedia’s introductory line on Immanuel Kant read that he was “a central figure of modern philosophy.” The SEP, on the other hand, confidently calls him “the central figure in modern philosophy.” It’s a difference of only one word, but it explains the consensus of the philosophical community and conveys Kant’s true significance. (While I was writing this, Wikipedia updated that line to read “the central figure”, but quoting and attributing the SEP.)

Another benefit of the SEP’s not being crowdsourced is that minority views get more exposure.  Wikipedia’s overview of feminist philosophy is hopelessly short. The SEP has dozens of meticulously researched entries. A 2012 survey by Wikimedia, Wikipedia’s parent organization, found that about 90% of its volunteers were men. “Its entries on Pokemon and female porn stars are comprehensive, but its pages on female novelists or places in sub-Saharan Africa are sketchy,” said the MIT Technology Review in its article The Decline of Wikipedia, which criticizes its byzantine editing hierarchy. The same goes for an important idea in philosophy: feminism. Wikipedia’s overview of feminist philosophy is hopelessly short. The SEP, on the other hand, is home to dozens of meticulously researched entries on the topic.

So the SEP model works, and it has 1,500 fact-checked, peer-reviewed entries to prove it.

To be sure, Wikipedia’s more ambitious scope makes it harder to implement such a rigorous standard of fact-checking and quality assurance. And as the Quartz piece points out, the SEP has other advantages as well, namely that Stanford pays for most of the operating costs, with various grants and endowments rounding out the needed funds.

But like its Wiki counterpart, the SEP is mostly a labour of love, with only a handful of paid staff, who focus mostly on administrative and technical support. It also draws its success from the dedication of its contributors, both towards the subjects that they write about, and to the cause of expanding human knowledge.

So the natural question becomes: which approach is ultimately better?

The [SEP] model cannot apply universally. Wikipedia is still necessary for its uncanny ability to provide basic (if often flawed) introductions to nearly everything. And StackOverflow probably offers the best chance at bringing some order to the ever-changing world of computer programming, where new languages and frameworks rise and fall with the sun.

Indeed, it might seem like philosophy is almost uniquely well-suited to the SEP’s model. It is a slow-moving discipline practiced by, literally, “lovers of wisdom,” willing to share lots of their time to spread that wisdom around. The SEP method has been tried in other fields, without success. People have contacted us from linguistics, to Egyptian studies, to a music department that wanted to make an online reference work,” Zalta says. None have been able to make a full dynamic reference happen.

Still, there are two reasons why it could be replicated.

First, even fast-moving, young disciplines like computer science or economics have core concepts that deserve comprehensive and authoritative explanation. StackOverflow is great at providing answers to highly specific programming questions, like how to round a number to two decimal points in Python, but fails to explain abstract or technical things like the theory of algorithms or the fundamentals of cryptography. In economics, there are dozens of excellent blogs, but where do you go to get an in-depth, impartial, picture of the marginal theory of value or comparative advantage?

These core ideas are fundamental. Self-taught programmers are wont to “solve” problems by copy-and-pasting code straight from StackOverflow and crossing their fingers, with little sense of what the code is doing or why it works. Economics blogs might tell you that Greece’s economy needs to become more competitive, but it’s hard to understand what exactly that means without an intuition for these central concepts.

The second reason an SEP-like model could work more broadly is that the unpaid labor put in by SEP writers and editors isn’t something new to academia. Refereeing papers, editing journals, and other work outside an academic’s core research and teaching are typically unpaid in most fields. “It hadn’t been done this way for reference works,” Zalta says; but having changed in philosophy, where writing for the SEP has become just another way to spend time working to make the field better, it could change elsewhere.

As one of the executive editors of the SEP prescribes, the solution is simply one of resolve and dedication: “What we had was several people single-mindedly focused on making this work. I think our model could be reproduced if you get the right people involved”.

So like most efforts to improve the human condition and promote progress, it is the heart that matters as much as the mind. Whether it is the SEP, Wikipedia, or the multitude of other academic and educational projects out there, what the world needs is more people with the passion and appreciation for the value of knowledge and its availability to all. How we go about doing this efficiently is a matter of debate and experimentation, but what matters most of all is that we even endeavor to do these things in the first place.

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