A Searchable Database of Philosophers?

I have been thinking for a while that it would be quite valuable
if there were a list of philosophers that was searchable by area of research,
gender, race, grad student/junior/senior status, etc. Such a list would appear
to be useful to folks searching for appropriate referees for papers, for folks
trying to make sure they are not overlooking excellent junior women for their
volume or conference on Kantian ethics, or for folks trying to fill out an APA
symposium on a particular topic.

After posting this idea on Facebook yesterday I learned from
Sally Haslanger that the APA ad hoc committee on the status and future of the
profession has determined that there is a need for such a database. I was
especially happy to also learn from Dave Chalmers that the good folks who bring
you Phil Papers (and such) are planning just such a database.

So I was hoping to generate some discussion about what this
database should look like. It seems clear to me that it should be at the individual’s
option whether he or she is listed by sex or race. Should participation be
entirely voluntary such that others may not list one as philosopher of science?
This seems trickier. On the one hand, it would be nice if the list was complete
or nearly so and there are some who may not object to being so listed but will
not get around to bothering to register. On the other, it is possible that a
person may be mislabeled if they do not do the labeling themselves. Seemingly
it would be ideal if people had the option of adding their CV or a write up of
their interests to their listing in the database. Another issue is if there
should be a limit to the number of areas of philosophy a person can claim as
areas of research. If there is such a limit, then people like Frank Jackson
might be left off lists they belong on. But if there is no such limit people
might exaggerate how many areas they are research active in. Also, what are the
categories we want people to be able to register (or be registered) under? How
fine-grained should those categories be?

I seek input on these and other questions concerning such a
database of philosophers. 

9 Replies to “A Searchable Database of Philosophers?

  1. Perhaps it would be ideal if people who are listed in the database not by their own initiative were notified of how they are listed and given the option of opting out?

  2. I’m not entirely sure what to think about this, but let me play devil’s advocate for a moment, at least: Why exactly is it good to have an opt-out option, or any subject control of this at all? I’m fairly certain I can’t opt out when someone creates a Wikipedia page about me, why should I be able to when it comes to the Big Book of Philosophers? Might not the most neutral version of this database be one where seeing someone’s information tells you nothing about what they think of the database or the information about them listed there, even the minimal information that they either chose not to opt-out or never found out about the database? And, on the side of this, what are some legitimate reasons a person would have for opting out, reasons that are strong enough to outweigh the benefits of having this be a complete database?

  3. I am against the opt out option too, unless there is a good reason to allow for it, and there simply isn’t one. Maybe people should be able to hide gender/race, but what are the reasons why? Sometimes giving people the choice is wrong too, for minorities or people typically excluded may be more likely to hide their identity and thereby be excluded from things. For example, possibly men will be less likely to tick “hide my gender” than women. Possibly feminist philosophers (all genders) will also be less likely to display their gender, so people that do feminist philosophy will be less searchable, etc. There are worries about the database in that they may be used for political or other targeting and harassment.
    I also like the idea of being labeled as things even if the philosopher doesn’t consider themselves to be, e.g., a philosopher of science. The labels should be quantitative (I.e., weighted,), so that borderline classifications are low on the list. E.g. X. Throckmorton: Philosophy of language (23), philosophy of mind (12), philosophy of action(1), applied ethics (1) …
    Here is an idea: treat data and presentation separately. Just get all the data you can, and *later* worry about things like how many areas of specialization people get, how to wight areas of specialization etc. The real question is how to get enough data to be useful for a range of things. Could people tag their own/each other’s publications with keywords, write their interests, and some combination of these is used for fuzzy specialization searches?

  4. I find this idea troubling when it is suggested as an opt-out or wholly involuntary data gathering operation.
    I find it troubling for the same reasons I find profiles of people maintained and traded by marketing corporations troubling. I am presuming the database will be publicly accessible, so that anyone, not only well-intentioned editors etc., can use it for any purpose.
    The only reason I can see for making it opt-out or wholly involuntary is that the list would be more comprehensive. But I worry about issues of consent and privacy. Why not make it opt-in? Or at least: try it as opt-in first (well-publicized)?

  5. I agree with all of Kim Frost’s points.
    Answering David Faraci’s question, “Why exactly is it good to have an opt-out option, or any subject control of this at all?”: There are good reasons to think that the race and gender of one’s name can make a difference to one’s job prospects or how one’s work is evaluated; searching for “implicit bias” should turn up plenty of examples. Some — perhaps even many — people of color and women use only their initials to try to avoid the effects of implicit bias. Publishing their full name, race, and gender in this database would significantly undermine this strategy. Lacking a solution to implicit bias, taking away the opt-out option would contribute to gender and racial injustice within philosophy.
    Against T.M.’s suggestion: In these sorts of Big Data projects, data collection, storage, analysis, and presentation can’t be treated at completely independent operations. If certain kinds of data aren’t going to be presented (age, for example), then collection needs to be designed either to ignore those data when they’re encountered or to remove them when the data are codified and put into storage.
    Against completeness: The completeness of the data in a database is relative to the categories or properties used. We don’t want it to include simply “all the data,” because then that includes one’s favorite stuffed animal as a child and where one’s kids go to school. I’d suggest presenting — and hence collecting only — the kinds of information that would go on the first few pages of a C.V.: education, appointments, areas of competence and specialization, publications and other projects. Even getting all of this information for every living academic philosopher would be a challenge: since there’s no standard way of presenting this information on C.V.s and departmental websites, it will have to be entered either manually or using an extraordinarily clever web crawler. Either way, we’re talking many, many hours of human labor.
    On taxonomy: PhilPapers already has a workable taxonomy of specializations and sub-specializations, and many recent publications are already tagged using this taxonomy. So, once someone’s publications are identified and tagged, it’s easy to generate a list of the areas that person publishes in. Teaching or “also interested in” areas could be done voluntarily.

  6. Dan,
    Certainly I’m aware that such bias exists. What I’m not clear on is how the opt-out (or even opt-in) function really serves to counteract such bias generally (even if it helps one or two individuals avoid it, though even that I’m not convinced of), especially given the sorts of things T.M. mentions regarding what we might call “bias revenge.”
    What’s more, we should keep in mind the extent to which the information you’re worried about is available elsewhere online. Someone’s first initial and last name (plus knowing they are a philosopher) can get me pretty far on Google if they haven’t made a concerted effort to minimize their web presence.
    The upshot is that I’m not convinced that, either generally or in nearly any specific case, the potential harms of having one’s name on this list would outweigh the benefits (either to one or to the profession) of having it be non-optional. and thus (hopefully) more complete.
    This is not to say, however, that it isn’t a good idea to limit information listed to the sort of “CV-type” information you mention. Of course, given Googleability, that might end up being merely expressive of our view that other information is irrelevant, rather than instrumental in actually preventing bias, but that can still be important (and may even counteract bias when we take a longer view). If the information were thus limited, though, it seems even less clear to me that we would have any reason to make it optional (in or out).

  7. I think some sort of list is a great idea from a feminist point of view: it is well known that one of the effects of gender bias is that we are less likely to think of women than men when thinking of who to invite to conferences/invite to contribute to edited volumes/ put on syllabuses and so on. It would be great to be able to look up a particular field and a list of women working in it. But I see a problem, which is that if the list is voluntarily maintained by the people themselves, it will end up being, like so many other online resources, dominated by people who have the time and energy for online self promotion. Those people tend not to be women, or members of other groups that are underrepresented in philosophy. If you look at philpapers for example, what comes up is what has been tagged and labelled, usually be the author themself.
    So I suppose I would be in favour of something very minimal. Names only. And leave it up to the person using the list to get more information. Of course that wouldn’t completely insulate it from the bias caused by self promotion, but it might somewhat.

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