Rasoamampianina, Vanessa Aliniaina
How is encyclopaedia authority established?
PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
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I embarked on this research because I wanted to explore the basis of textual authority. Such an understanding is particularly important in a world where there is such an overload of information that it is a challenge for the public to identify which publications to choose when looking for specific information. I decided to look at the case of encyclopaedias because of the widespread belief that encyclopaedias are the ultimate authorities. I also made the choice based on the observation that, besides the research on Wikipedia, the scientific community seems to overlook encyclopaedias, despite of the role these latter play as key sources of information for the general public.
Two theories are combined to serve as a framework for the thesis. On the one hand, there is the theory of cognitive authority as defined by Józef Maria Bocheński, Richard De George, and Patrick Wilson. On the other hand, there is the theory of quality as defined from the various frameworks recommended by librarians and information scientists on how to assess the quality of reference works. These two theoretical frameworks are used to deconstruct the concept of authority and to highlight aspects of authority which may be particularly worthy of investigation. In this thesis, studies were conducted on the following: (1) a literature review on the origin and evolution of encyclopaedia authority throughout the history of encyclopaedia, (2) a review of previous research pertaining to the quality and the authority of Wikipedia, (3) an analysis of the publishing and dissemination of science and technology encyclopaedias published in the 21st century throughout worldwide libraries, (4) a survey of perspective of encyclopaedia authors on the role of encyclopaedias in society and on the communication of scientific uncertainties and controversies, and (5) an analysis of book reviews towards a general assessment of encyclopaedia quality.
The thesis illustrates how a concept such as authority which is typically taken for granted can actually be more complex and more problematic than it appears, thereby challenging widespread beliefs in society. In particular, the thesis pinpoints potential contradictions regarding the importance of the author and the publishers in ensuring encyclopaedia authority. On a theoretical level, the thesis revisits the concept of cognitive authority and initiates a discussion on the complex interaction between authority and quality. On a more pragmatic level, the thesis contributes towards the creation of guidelines for encyclopaedia development. As an exploratory study, the thesis also identifies a range of areas which should be of priority for future research.
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