Thursday, 1 October 2015

An engagement challenge

Here’s a challenge to our universities – can you match the academic outreach work of one of the Ivy League giants?

A big hat-tip to AnneMarie Cunningham (@amcunningham) for tweeting an article from Quartz about the Stanford Encyclopedia [sic] of Philosophy, which I hadn’t come across before. In short, the SEP is an online encyclopaedia of philosophy (the name gives that bit away) which is academically edited, rigorous, up-to-date, and free to the world.

I’m not going to be able to improve on Nikhil Sonnad’s article about the SEP, and he also has a good line or two about the inevitable shortcomings of Wikipedia. Instead I want to pick up on the question of why there aren’t more initiatives like this.
Denis Diderot - an earlier encyclopaedist

If universities have any single purpose, it is surely about the creation, preservation and dissemination of knowledge. This is operationalised through teaching and research, but at its heart the university is a means of ensuring that we learn as a species and that we remember the lessons learnt before us. This is a grand and noble challenge (and also why I think that helping universities be better is a good thing for me to do.)

Stanford had to seed fund the SEP, and despite the various grants from foundations and trusts to fund its development, still bears some of the recurrent costs. But the amount must be negligible, compared to Stanford’s overall funds. And the reputational gains for a UK university to do something similar (in a different discipline, obviously) would be large. And think of the clear contribution to meeting the charitable objects of the university.

Would some disciplines be more amenable to the encyclopaedic treatment than others? Perhaps so – the speed with which some scientific disciplines develop, and the very minor developments which can count as progress, mean that an encyclopaedia of physics, say, may well be less useful than the latest journals in the field. But I don’t expect the SEP will replace the journals in philosophy: maybe I’m overplaying this.

Here, then, is the challenge – will a UK university step up to the plate and fund a similar development? And if so, can we spell encyclopaedia properly, please?

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