Cognitive Science Dictionaries and Open Access

There are some quick reference applications in the cognitive sciences for which Wikipedia is not yet fully adequate. I notice this especially when I’m trying to understand a difficult paper. Usually, one of the reasons a paper is difficult to understand is because it contains unfamiliar terminology.

My own experience, and I suspect that this will be a fairly uncontroversial claim, is that the level of technical coverage provided in paper-only specialist dictionaries is currently greater than that provided by either Wikipedia or most other free online reference sources. Three paper reference works I find particularly helpful are the APA Dictionary of Psychology (which seems to be one of the most extensive available), David Crystal’s A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, and the Dictionary of Cell and Molecular Biology.

When I am fortunate enough to be reading a paper in the library, what I sometimes like to do is pull from the shelves not just one, but several dictionaries relating to the subject at hand. Each time I come to a word I don’t understand, I will look up that term in all of the dictionaries. In many cases, there are pieces missing from one definition that are neatly filled in by another.

If I am reading a psychology paper, I will assemble several dictionaries of psychological terms. In reading a linguistics paper, I will take down multiple dictionaries of linguistic terms. And so on.

There are a few problems with this approach. First, if I am using a set of dictionaries, no one else in the library can use them. Second, I must actually be sitting in a reference library, with a stack of dictionaries in front of me, to do my reading. Third, it is time-consuming to look up each of the definitions one by one.

Single library copies are less of a problem as publishers create online editions of their reference works, and libraries subscribe to them. My institution, for instance, allows me to access the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (REP) and the MIT Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science (MITECS).

This is useful to the academic researcher, but not all institutions subscribe to all publications. And not all researchers have institutional access. Even when they do, it does not fully help with the third problem—which is that it is time consuming to look up a single term in multiple dictionaries at once.

There are a lot of metacrawler search engines out there, with various levels of customizability. None of them, that I know of, allows you the flexibility to be able to work with your library’s proxy server to be able to query multiple subscribed dictionaries at once.

I started wondering: when it comes to reference works in the cognitive sciences, are there strong open access alternatives? Is it possible to produce a reference work which approaches the depth and specificity of those mentioned above, in a cost-effective, open access format?

It is possible, because at least one example already exists.

A model reference work in this space is the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy (SEP). It’s peer-reviewed, revised quarterly, and each entry is maintained by a single expert or team of experts. Reading the SEP’s Publishing Model is highly instructive. They have carefully automated a great deal of their workflow to keep costs down. Designated areas for authors, subject editors, and the Principal Editor each have functionality designed to make that role easier to perform. Reminders, quarterly archiving (to create unchanging, citable references), cross-referencing and link-checking are all automatic, reducing the editorial burden.  This approach, which the SEP bills as a scholarly dynamic reference work, seems to be unique to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but could clearly be applied elsewhere.

What other Open Access reference works exist in the cognitive sciences? Are there other Open Access reference works with the depth of MITECS or the range of the APA? Could the scholarly dynamic approach (peer-reviewed, single-author, regular fixed editions), work across the cognitive sciences? What other models exist that might be tried?

Lastly, are there tools I have missed that might be useful for looking up multiple definitions simultaneously?

I welcome your thoughts.


About the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Craig, E. (2003). Routledge encyclopedia of philosophy online. London: Routledge.

Crystal, D., & Crystal, D. (2008). A dictionary of linguistics and phonetics. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.

Lackie, J. M., Dow, J. A. T., & Blackshaw, S. E. (1999). The dictionary of cell and molecular biology. San Diego: Academic Press.

Wilson, RA. & Kiel FC (eds.). MIT encyclopedia of the cognitive sciences. (1999).  Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.


4 responses to “Cognitive Science Dictionaries and Open Access

  1. Scholarpedia ( might be another model worth looking at. Like the SEP it is regularly published, peer reviewed reference material. Unfortunately, it seems to have struggled to achieve critical mass. I’m sure they would welcome cognitive science contributions.

    • Jonathan – thank you for this reference. I find it particularly interesting that they are starting from a few highly constrained areas (developing, in effect, a series of specialist encyclopedias) and working out from there.

      And indeed three of those five areas are of interest to cognitive science: Computational Neuroscience, Computational Intelligence, and Dynamical Systems. The hope of the editors is that these seeds will grow into Encyclopedias of Neuroscience, Mathematics, and Computer Science respectively.

      They seem to have had some success in inviting Nobel Laureates, Fields Medalists, and other originators of important ideas to write entries on their particular contribution.

      The model, as I read it, is that each article is written by a single editor-nominated individual, and then curated by that individual or their successor. Curatorships are automatically passed on to the highest-ranked contributors to that entry, based on the rankings of the current curator. Anyone can suggest edits, but they must be approved by the curator. The curator will also rank the quality of the edit, which is presumably a crucial piece in the logic of having the most highly-ranked contributor to a piece inherit it.

  2. Under Open Access philosophy, Redalyc aims to contribute to the editorial scientific activity produced in and about Ibero-America making available for public consultation the contents of 550 scientific journals of different knowledge areas:

    • pepepedraza11 – Redalyc is a great initiative. I found particularly interesting their requirements for new journals to join. I wonder under the terms of such agreements, whether in the future it might be possible to similarly open the content of existing journal articles for (for instance) peer or author reviewed annotation and comment. Or to make available to authors of existing papers easy ways to add supplemental material (full resolution stims, experimental code, data, models, unpublished graphs) that would not have been accepted originally by the journal.

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