Jisc has a mind to rescue philosophy treasure trove

August 19, 2005

With entries ranging from Aristotle to zombies, the world's leading online philosophy encyclopaedia has been saved for academics thanks to an intervention by the Joint Information Systems Committee.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( SEP ) is available free to researchers across the world and contains hundreds of entries written, refereed and maintained by more than a thousand philosophers.

But it recently issued a global plea for an endowment of $4 million (£2.2 million) to secure its future. It warned that it could not survive beyond this year on its existing combination of volunteer workers, institutional support and a series of grants.

There were fears that it might be axed or be taken over by commercial publishers that might have imposed a levy on its use. Alerted to the SEP 's plight, Jisc consulted researchers across the UK, who were vociferous in their support for the encyclopaedia.

Jisc promotes and facilitates the use of information and communications technology to support further and higher education in the UK.

Caron Milloy, Jisc's collections manager, said: "They were fully behind the Jisc proposal to contribute to SEP , and we decided to take this forward on behalf of the whole UK academic community."

Alexander Bird, professor of philosophy at Bristol University, said the SEP had secured the world's top researchers to write its articles, ensuring that they were not only of a high scholarly standard but also clearly and accessibly written, useful for students as well as academics.

Entries cover not only famous and not so well-known philosophers but also explore topics such as love, time machines, miracles and prophecy.

Robert Williams, a St Andrews University PhD student, told Jisc: "The SEP has the best survey articles available on key topics in philosophy. The articles can be more detailed and are certainly more contemporary than conventional encyclopaedias. That the service is freely available cannot fail to improve the breadth of knowledge of researchers, undergraduates and others."

And Robin Le Poidevin, professor of metaphysics at Leeds University, said: "It is one of the most useful online resources, and all the more welcome at a time of high student numbers when library resources are overstretched."

Stanford University will raise $1 million for the SEP , a project within its Center for the Study of Language and Information. But the SEP must find another $1 million a year for the next three years.

Jisc's contribution remains confidential under the agreement with the SEP . But the UK academic community is one of the heaviest users of the encyclopaedia, accounting for 10 per cent of worldwide use and 10 per cent of entries. It is thought that Jisc's contribution reflects this.

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