Chances are, hardly a week goes by that you don’t visit Wikipedia for something, whether it’s to settle an argument or look up a reference. But in its desire to be all things to all people, the site has had to become more defensive to prevent itself from being hijacked by either vandals who destroy entries or sanitizers who remove unflattering things. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP)—which actually predates Wikipedia but hasn’t gotten nearly the attention—offers a model for how Wikipedia could run in the future. Call it Wikipedia 2.0.
“[Wikipedia] is not operated by a sophisticated corporation but by a leaderless collection of volunteers who generally work under pseudonyms and habitually bicker with each other,” writes Tom Simonite in MIT Technology Review. This crowdsourced structure is what allows Wikipedia to respond quickly to new information, but also makes it difficult for the site to be comprehensive, because contributors only write entries about things they’re interested in. And because anyone can make or edit an entry, it can be difficult to know their biases.
“Wikipedia is where one goes to quickly determine the capital of Senegal, or to recall who produced the 1971 album Gimme Dat Ding,” writes Liam Julian in Humanities. “A reference to Wikipedia in a student paper or scholarly work (outside of maybe popular culture and technology subjects) risks the appearance of laziness.”
Consequently, Wikipedia has made the barriers for writing and editing entries more rigorous, with the result that the number of volunteer editors has dropped by a third, Simonite writes.
In contrast, the SEP, formed in 1995, has a paid staff, as well as academic volunteer editors who assign the writing of new entries and the editing of existing ones to other volunteers. “Its creators have solved one of the internet’s fundamental problems: How to provide authoritative, rigorously accurate knowledge, at no cost to readers,” writes Nikhil Sonnad in Quartz. “It’s something the encyclopedia, or SEP, has managed to do for two decades.”
It works like this. “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,” Sonnad writes. “If the invitation is accepted, the author sends an outline to the relevant subject editors.” Editors work with the author on the outline, and can reject submissions, though in practice that rarely happens, he writes. Essentially, it’s a free, online version of a refereed academic journal.
The result is that the SEP tends to be much more authoritative and diverse than Wikipedia, Sonnad writes. In addition, entries are typically updated every four years (though some are updated as often as once a year). Operating costs are funded by Stanford, while the editors and authors work for free. The remaining costs are funded largely through donations by academic libraries.
On the other hand, the SEP, by its very nature, covers only philosophical topics—though, to be fair, its definition of what it considers “philosophy” is pretty broad, covering even concepts such as “holes” and the ethics of social networking, from a philosophical basis. Moreover, far more people than just philosophers use it—or, perhaps, philosophers are found in a remarkable number of fields.
“Entries are regularly cited in law briefs and court cases both in the United States and in Europe,” writes Michaela Hulstyn in Stanford News. “The site was also read and referenced in military contexts more than 15,000 times between September 2013 and September 2014.” It even gets cited in arguments about Game of Thrones and discussions about ballet.
“It now contains nearly 1,500 entries, and changes are made daily,” Sonnad writes. “The site gets over a million page views per month—a respectable number, given how many entries there are with titles like Tibetan epistemology and philosophy of language or Peirce’s theory of Signs.”
“It took one of the first stabs at creating a truthful, rigorous reference resource that could thrive on the web,” writes Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic. “Experts write and edit and update its articles. College professors use it in their syllabi throughout the world. So when it publishes a new article, it’s a signal: This thing is an increasingly big deal in the philosophical world.”
Consequently, some people suggest that Wikipedia could use more of an SEP approach, at least for more academic topics that don’t change often. While the SEP is about philosophy, there’s nothing saying the same model—editors who assign articles to experts in their particular fields—couldn’t be applied to other fields.
That said, attempts to expand it to other fields haven’t worked very well. “Covering a relatively limited, esoteric subject in an online, editorially controlled encyclopedia based at a prestigious and well-funded university is one thing; attempting to cover all subjects in the same way is quite another,” Julian writes.
But Sonnad thinks there’s a role for an SEP-like model in other academic fields. “Even fast-moving, young disciplines like computer science or economics have core concepts that deserve comprehensive and authoritative explanation,” he writes. “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?”
Admittedly, such an approach might not help with Wikipedia’s bread and butter, such as its entries on popular culture and quickly changing events. “Wikipedia is still necessary for its uncanny ability to provide basic (if often flawed) introductions to nearly everything,” Sonnad writes. “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.”
Certainly, even academics can have their own biases, though the SEP has been praised for its comprehensive nature. But for the legions of people who count on Wikipedia for information on more basic information, adopting the SEP’s methodology could help Wikipedia continue to be an authoritative voice, while it could still use the traditional free-for-all method for more ephemeral entries.
“The SEP is likely too rigorous to be the standard against which all information online is compared,” Sonnad writes. “But it shows we can create many more places that explain clearly the things humans know to be true.”
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