The Free Online Encyclopedia That Makes Wikipedia Look Amateur

The Free Online Encyclopedia That Makes Wikipedia Look Amateur

As Wikipedia celebrates International Open Access Week, we acknowledge the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy--a much needed beacon in the online world of open-access information that has been around since 1995, much before Wikipedia or its lesser-used contemporaries. 
While the internet as we know it is a black-hole of misinformation, subjective, opinionated commentary, personal assaults and cyber bullying, and funny cat videos, combing through this murky ocean for a drop of truthful information can be a herculean task. In the hunt for knowledge, students, professionals, and others seekers are forced to rely on second-hand opinion pieces, and the likes of Wikipedia, leaving them none the richer, information wise.

Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced information platform, and while its article count is nearly 5 million on the English version alone, none of the authors are experts on the issues they are writing about, as per the crowd-source model. Other than children using Wikipedia as a source for badly-researched projects, which is bad enough, there can be more dire consequences of misinformation. A Journal of the American Osteopathic Association study found that many medical-related Wikipedia articles contain false information, so for people that rely on this site, and so many do, or other health forums that aren’t written by medical experts, there can be serious consequences. While some might argue that the alternative to crowd-sourced, less reliable information platforms like online encyclopedias could be printed books by reliable authors, that is a valid argument except for one thing: when new research comes to light, printed books are no longer up to date and current, making them once again, not a completely reliable source of information.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) was started by Edward Zalta, a scholar of metaphysics and philosophy of mathematics, in 1995, long before Wikipedia and the likes, making it the oldest web-based encyclopedia still active. As one of the leading sources of scholarly research, this gold mine of information is as well-researched and reliable as it is trustworthy and unbiased. The SEP follows a very specific model: the concept of dynamic reference work.

Edward Zalta during Wikimania, 2015

From Identity Politics to Humanism, from Medieval theories to Kantian morality, the SEP has just about 1,500 entries, all written painstakingly by philosophers who are experts in the field they author, and are expected to hold a doctorate in philosophy or their related subject, as well as edited by research editors that ensure objectivity and accuracy. Not to mention, help authors stick to a structure and set of guidelines. While trustworthy authors that are experts in their fields are reliable, there is another advantage they provide as well. Online sources of information such as Wikipedia that are crowd-sourced tend to reflect the voice of a majority (read: male, white, techie). In this, there is a hole in the coverage of feminist theories, and other minority-group related articles--a gap which SEP fills since authors are recruited universally, and do not solely represent a majority.
Additionally, this encyclopedia is constantly up-to-date and current, as authors are required to review and update it every four years, or sooner if there is new research on the matter, which explains the ‘dynamic’ concept. Still, each change that an author makes is refereed by the subject editor before it is posted online. As Zalta says, “A country changes its laws about voluntary euthanasia. There are new discoveries in logic. New political theories crop up. Research is continuing about the definitions of life and death. Moreover, there are new developments in other fields – the philosophy of physics, the meaning of the theory of quantum mechanics.” He believes that with other online information sources, you can’t get all the knowledge you need without zig-zagging through different related pages, piecing together the jigsaw of a topic from different articles. Breaking this pattern, Zalta’s concept in contrast strives to be all-encompassing, and authors provide well-researched, thorough and wide-spread articles to create a one-stop shop encyclopedia.
As great as this reliable encyclopedia of philosophy sounds, we haven’t gotten to the best part yet. The SEP is a free, online, open-access information source that allows readers to read thorough and in-depth research and explanations of various aspects of the field of philosophy, covering diverse topics such as consciousness, torture, euthanasia, the philosophy of biology, architecture, children’s rights and so forth. Recognising this breakthrough, Iran’s Qoqnous Publications have translated books from the SEP series into Persian and published them in Tehran, Iran--yet another example of the SEP contributing to open-access spread of knowledge and information.

Translations of SEP to Persian, Image Source: IBNA