Wikipedia, if it were run by academic experts, would look like this

Students, here's an Internet site you can footnote. The entries in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy are written by leading experts and vetted by others before they appear. From quantum mechanics to "Human/Non-Human Chimeras," these articles, based on serious research, attract 700,000 visits per week.

Jack Hubbard

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy includes entries by nearly 1,400 authors.

It's September, and as school resumes, so does the wrangling between students and teachers across the country over the reliability of Wikipedia and other Internet sources as fodder for footnotes in research papers.

The debate has been going on for years. When philosopher Larry Sanger left Wikipedia – the project he co-founded – he said its "anti-elitism" was the root of its shortcomings. He said that because pretty much anyone could write anything, expertise was mistrusted and those committed to mayhem or propaganda could too easily dominate the medium.

But he did recommend an online alternative: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The encyclopedia, written and edited by academic experts from Stanford and elsewhere, has the academic muscle that educators seek in footnotes, said Edward Zalta, the principal editor and senior research scholar at the Center for the Study of Language and Information. 

Stanford's dynamic reference work was a wunderkind of the Internet when it launched in 1995, three years before Google and six years before Wikipedia. It has over 700,000 visits per week, a big number for an academic site.

Some saw the idea as a stroke of genius. Zalta saw it as an inevitability. Luck or ingenuity, it's a concept that may be revolutionizing the way scholars do business. The online encyclopedia is a fully vetted, refereed reference work, updated regularly, that explains the dynamic world of philosophy.

Think the world of philosophy is old and fusty, exhaling the dust of Aristotle and Kant? Think again.

Philosophy as a dynamic discipline

"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," said Zalta. "Moreover, there are new developments in other fields – the philosophy of physics, the meaning of the theory of quantum mechanics."

Check the online encyclopedia's entry on "Human/Non-Human Chimeras" for a cutting-edge discussion: "There's a moral question for you – humans with pig or baboon hearts. What's the ethics of that?" asked Zalta. "We've tried to organize a profession – the profession of philosophers – to help us stay on top of this explosion of information."

The online encyclopedia now has over 1,200 entries, with nearly 1,400 authors writing about consciousness, torture, euthanasia and children's rights as well as the philosophy of biology, the philosophy of mathematics and other topics.

Type the words "quantum mechanics" into Google. Out of the 10.1 million results, the first listing cites Wikipedia. The second cites the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. But while virtually anyone can contribute to Wikipedia and alter the text, 120 leading philosophers from around the world oversee contributions to the Stanford project, and its advisory board is the Stanford Department of Philosophy. No one can alter text without passing through several layers of approval.

Back to that quantum mechanics entry. Zalta noted all the hyperlinked blue text in the Wikipedia version – it's like those cookbooks where the recipes look straightforward, until you realize that the list of ingredients includes recipes on other pages. A Wikipedia article may be impossible to comprehend without an awful lot of clicking.

"You can't just read it all the way through, you have to go zigzagging," said Zalta. "The entries are not self-contained."

On the Stanford site, by contrast, "You don't have to go off and read anything else. You just have to study."

'Our model is authoritative'

"Our model is authoritative," said Zalta. "Their model is one an academic isn't going to be attracted toIf you are a young academic, who might spend six months preparing a great article on Thomas Aquinas, you're not going to publish in a place where anyone can come along and change this."

Each site embodies a different ethos as well. Wikipedia is the Internet version of democracy at work. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is academia becoming airborne.

Philosophy Professor John Perry, then director of Stanford's Center for the Study of Language and Information, didn't have anything quite so elaborate in mind when he approached Zalta in the early 1990s. He was simply pursuing an office philosophy of his own: He thought all his researchers should be involved in some project that was "potentially fundable" and he tried to encourage projects "that supplemented our very theoretical bent with ones that deal with the interface to information, especially the new phenomenon of the Internet and Web."

"I suggested an Internet-based dictionary of philosophy. My idea was very vague," said Perry, the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus. "It seemed that the Routledge Encyclopedia [another encyclopedia of philosophy], which was just being developed, was going to be extremely expensive and inaccessible to many parts of the general public. It seemed that the Internet would allow for connections from articles to bibliographies and other research sites."

Over the years, the project has received over $1 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities and over half a million dollars from the National Science Foundation's division for Information and Intelligent Systems.

Since 2003, the program has looked beyond grants and toward creating its own endowment – a move that was hailed last year by Ithaka, a group that studies academic use of digital technologies, as one of a dozen exemplary models for "sustainability strategies" in the Internet world. To date, it has raised three-quarters of its planned $4.125 million endowment.

That's surprising, considering the online empire is run by less than two full-time people. Zalta works 50 percent time on the encyclopedia; for the rest of his time, he returns to his academic specialty, the rarified philosophical atmosphere of logic and metaphysics.

Meanwhile, his more immediate legacy is that he's used technology to solve a problem that stumped Denis Diderot when his first Encyclopédie was revised and supplemented in the mid-18th century: By the time it's on paper, it's already outdated.

"It's the natural thing to do," Zalta said. "I'm surprised no one is doing it for the other disciplines."