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Open Access Encyclopedias

December 14, 2009

Can an information source that is free also be reliable? Or does the price of content always reflect its value?

In higher education, this debate usually takes place in the context of academic publishing, where open access journals have emerged to challenge their pricey print predecessors. This mirrors a wider trend in media, where lean, Web-based, free-content outlets have begun supplanting newspapers, magazines, and other publications that depend on subscription revenue.

The same narrative is playing out in the world of scholarly reference works. Encyclopedia Britannica, the genre’s sturdiest brand, has been marginalized in the Internet age by Wikipedia and Google — tools it dismisses as untrustworthy. Quality, Britannica says, comes at a price: $69.95 per year for Web access, to be exact ($1,349 if you want the bound volumes). Professors, tending to agree, have debated whether and how their students should be allowed to use Wikipedia while lamenting the lazy research habits Google has enabled.

Meanwhile, a number of academic institutions are quietly trying to do what Britannica and others say can’t be done: build online encyclopedias that are rigorous, scholarly, and free to access.

Journals may have the cachet of being the frontlines of academic discovery, but encyclopedias are hardly trivial, says Shawn Martin, a scholarly communications librarian at the University of Pennsylvania. It is important that well-vetted basic information on scholarly topics be publicly available — not only for undergraduates and curious Googlers, Martin says, but also to graduate assistants and professors teaching outside their specific area of expertise, who might not have time to wade through volumes of granular literature.

“There is a need to get good verifiable academic information out there,” he says, “whether it’s general or specific.”

The Prestige

So how do you do it? Britannica employs 100 editors, about seven or eight of whom review each entry. It also pays its 4,500-odd experts for authoring entries. That infrastructure is expensive to maintain. Britannica found out early on, after a disastrous attempt to make its content free on the Web, that it couldn’t support its famously rigorous editorial process without charging for access, Ian Grant, managing director of Britannica’s United Kingdom operations, told the e-commerce site Educonsultancy earlier this year. While the 240-year-old reference giant recently added a Wikipedia-like feature that allows readers to recommend edits and new entries, it has repeatedly said it has no plans to ditch its pay wall.

The first challenge of building an encyclopedia that is both free and scholarly, therefore, is finding a way to enlist expert contributors and qualified editors cheaply without compromising the rigor of the editorial process.

Eugene M. Izhikevich says the answer is to make contributing a privilege. Izhikevich, a former senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, is editor-in-chief of Scholarpedia — a free, “peer-reviewed” online compendium. But unlike Britannica, Scholarpedia does not pay its experts for writing and overseeing entries.

The key to attracting voluntary labor, says Izhikevich, is by persuading experts that their contributions will be lasting, and that by participating they will be peopled with intellectual royalty. In other words, you do it by playing to their egos.

“In the future my hope is that the best experts will be fighting for the honor of maintaining articles, and fighting for the honor of writing new articles,” says Izhikevich, noting that he has used his connections in the scientific community to arrange for entries on various concepts and objects to be curated by the people who invented them. “To be in this club of original inventors, of people who changed science,” he says, “I think this is the biggest motivating factor for those experts — who are very busy people, who don’t have time to contribute to Wikipedia or any other source — to still find time to contribute to Scholarpedia.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which also does not pay its writers, has managed to work the prestige angle to mobilize a willing corps of more than 1,700 unpaid contributors.

Colin Allen, an adjunct professor of philosophy and science at Indiana University who was one of the encyclopedia’s first authors when it was launched in 1995, says that writing and maintaining entries — which can run as long as 10,000 words, and require updates as scholarship on the topic evolves — is no small task. “It’s not just something you can quickly dash off on a weekend,” says Allen, who now serves as an associate editor for the encyclopedia.

Persuading professors to write and oversee lengthy encyclopedia entries pro bono at the expense of time that could be spent on other publishing ventures is not always easy — particularly professors who are still vying for tenure, Allen says. While the Stanford project by now has enough cachet in the philosophy world that a tenure committee might appreciate the fact that a candidate has published there, an encyclopedia entry is still considered less impressive than a journal article, he says.

In the absence of pay and a traditional clip for the tenure file, Allen has had to emphasize different incentives when coaxing busy professors to volunteer their time to the project. First of all, he points out that an entry in a free, Web-based encyclopedia is likely to be read by more people than an article in an expensive, narrowly tailored journal. And unlike Wikipedia, or more conventional encyclopedias, they’ll get a byline.

“I think in many encyclopedias, they’re somewhat anonymous. And of course in Wikipedia it’s completely distributed, so there’s no one person taking credit for it,” Allen says. “That has all sorts of problems from the academic author’s point of view. First, you could write something today and it could be changed tomorrow, and you have no control over that.

“Second,” he continues, “nobody gives you any credit for having done it. A lot of academic writing is not driven by getting paid for writing… What we do is get credit for the things that we write.”

Size Matters

From a business standpoint, the most attractive aspect of Wikipedia might be the fact that unpaid volunteers create and edit most of the content. But to consumers, the site’s greatest draw, aside from being cost-free, is probably its breadth. The site has 14 million entries — 3 million in English — on everything from wave-particle duality to “Jon and Kate Plus 8.”

Achieving that sort of breadth while being free and expertly fact-checked is a daunting prospect. Most of the free encyclopedia projects that have come out of academe are limited by topic: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology and so on. Even Scholarpedia, whose name and tagline (“the peer-reviewed, open-access encyclopedia”) implies a broad scope, currently only publishes articles on a few specialized topics in science. Other free, online encyclopedias supported by universities, such as the Encyclopedia Virginia, the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, and the New Georgia Encyclopedia, limit themselves to a single state and focus mostly on history.

None have immediate plans to expand to anything approaching the breadth of Wikipedia or even traditional encyclopedias like Britannica. “This is tricky,” says Izhikevich, of Scholarpedia, “because the bigger the project — you have to find funding to manage editors, who will manage other editors, who will manage authors from all those disciplines… If you spread to more than one area, you spread thin.”

Citizendium, a free encyclopedia project started by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger, aims for both comprehensiveness and rigorous editorial oversight; but it has managed to publish only 121 "expert-approved" articles since it went live in early 2007. The approval queue is 12,790 articles long.

Another idea would be to combine disparate projects into a one-stop shop where users can look up reliable information on multiple topics. “To me, the long-term goal out of all of this is to create another world on the Web that would have enough synergy among all its linkages to be a kind of alternative to Wikipedia,” says Jamil Zainaldin, president of the Georgia Humanities Council, which co-sponsors the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

But such a project could face significant technology barriers. The current projects — aside from being too few to challenge Wikipedia, even if combined — use a variety of publishing platforms that are not necessarily compatible with one another. In order to cut-and-paste several narrowly focused encyclopedias together into a one-stop shop, says Allen, they would have to retrofit their content to a common internal data structure, aggregate it, then collaborate to build a common user interface so everything would look the same.

All this, of course, would cost money. And with Web publishing technology quickly evolving and most current projects still well short of financial stability, the creation of anything resembling a free, scholarly encyclopedia on the order of Wikipedia, or even Britannica, seems well outside of realm of possibility in the near term.

“There’s very little money to build a platform that everybody knows in three or four years is going to be outmoded, or the person who built it will have moved on, and you’re stuck with something that you don’t know how to do a lot with,” says Zainaldin. “And that’s really, I think, what’s keeping people out of the business right now.”

The Funding Problem

Like a lot of free-content sites, most of these encyclopedia projects are still grappling with funding anxieties.

Since neither the New Georgia Encyclopedia nor Encyclopedia Virginia earn any revenue, both depend on foundation grants and their state governments. While they consider these sources relatively stable, relying on state funding means entries on contemporary public figures and other hot-button topics run the risk of becoming politicized, says Matthew Gibson, Encyclopedia Virginia’s editor. “There’s a very tenuous line that we have to walk if we do publish an entry on a living politician, what potential ramifications there might be,” Gibson says. The fact that it has not happened yet, he adds, “has really been a lifesaver.”

The Encyclopedia of Egyptology, based at the University of California at Los Angeles, has to employ salaried editors since “many of the authors are non-native speakers of English, and the texts require often substantial corrections,” according to its editor, Willeke Wendrich, an associate professor of Egyptian archaeology at UCLA. The encyclopedia has big plans, including translating all entries into German, French, and Arabic. But the project’s National Endowment for the Humanities funding is due to expire soon. It is currently developing a “full version” with “higher functionality” that it hopes to sell to libraries. But, says Wendrich, “It still remains to be seen if libraries, for instance, will take a subscription even though the information is or will become available for free.”

Wendrich might see the Stanford project as cause for optimism. Of all the free encyclopedia projects identified by Inside Higher Ed, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is the closest to sustainability; Edward N. Zalta, the editor, says it has squirreled away about 75 percent of the $4 million endowment it estimates it needs to be completely self-reliant.

To make it that far, Zalta and his collaborators had to get clever. A key fund-raising strategy has been getting libraries to pay “membership dues” even though the whole encyclopedia is available online. The libraries that pay dues get a few cursory benefits — such as the right to periodically archive "versions" of the encyclopedia — but really, the arrangement just allows Zalta to solicit donations from other university libraries without running afoul of laws prohibiting libraries at public institutions from giving away state-allocated funds. Since Stanford guarantees their money back if the project dies, Zalta has been able to sell it as an investment in open access — a cause many libraries, frustrated by the rising prices of academic journals, have been happy to support, he says.

They also had to get lucky. Zalta attributes a large portion of the Stanford project’s success to favorable circumstances. “You need to do it at a university that has a long and good track record of managing its endowment,” he says, noting that the project’s nest egg is linked to Stanford’s portfolio and returns at the same rate. "You have to have administrators who are going to listen and to see reason to try out these new models. You need to have a publication that’s widely supported throughout the profession.”

And then there’s Zalta himself. Building a strong reputation from scratch is no easy task in academe, says Allen, the associate editor. Zalta, like Izhikevich at Scholarpedia, was already a widely published scholar in his field when he took up the project. That instant credibility, Allen says, is a major reason why the encyclopedia was able to round up enough entries in the first few years to win the faith of its early supporters, then wrangle up nearly $2 million in grants over the last decade.

“Finding somebody who would be willing to take that risk and would be of the caliber that they certainly could get an ordinary faculty position if they so desired” is rare, Allen says, noting that Zalta’s responsibilities to the encyclopedia have prevented him from pursuing a full professorship. “You have to have the person in charge be someone that the profession as a whole respects” he says. “That was one of the keys here.”

No Definite Blueprint

As the literate world adjusts to the disruptions of the Internet revolution, many see the open access movement as an unstoppable tide. But the question of whether free and scholarly reference works can sustain themselves remains unanswered. Zalta, architect of the most successful effort to date, acknowledges that the Stanford project does not imply an "immediately transferable" blueprint for success. For the other projects, it may be too early to tell whether they will survive in the long term.

Even Wikipedia is beginning to bend under the burden of the free-content model. It recently started running large banner ads asking users to donate money to curb the massive infrastructure costs that come from being the world's fifth most highly-trafficked Web site. It has imposed increasingly strict submission and editing codes, and the rate at which new articles are added has fallen significantly. Jimmy Wales, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Wikipedia, recently said he is advocating a system that would require a community of "top editors" to approve all edits before they go live.

"As it matures," The Wall Street Journal recently noted, "Wikipedia... is becoming less freewheeling and more like the organizations it set out to replace."

 

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