A Bullet Point List on Where to Find Knowledge
On how to get access to high-end human knowledge that is free, readable and synthetic on the Internet.
Access to knowledge has arguably never been as democratic as it is today, and yet it is still facing many challenges.
On one side, there are the fake news. Sometimes they are obvious, sometimes they are subtle. The other day I was reading an article online criticizing a French policy and I was finding it fascinating… Until the point where the ‘journalist’ clearly got carried away by his/her emotions and started comparing France with Nazi Germany — the Godwin point.
On the other side, at the very front of human knowledge are the academic articles and books. Those are the ones approaching Truth with a big T, exploring in depth and breadth all the fields of existence. But there is a problem. Academicians spend years honing their understanding of the topic they specialize in, and when time has come to publish their discoveries, the result is often… puzzling.
A speaking example would be the writings of American gender theorist Judith Butler. Here is a random sentence from her book Gender Trouble:
“Any psychoanalytic theory that prescribes a developmental process that presupposes the accomplishment of a given father-son or mother-daughter identification mistakenly conflates the Symbolic with the real and misses the critical point of incommensurability that exposes “identification” and the drama of “being” and “having” the Phallus as invariably phantasmatic.”
Even my auto-correct suggests me that some words here do not exist. While the use of academic jargon is necessary at times to write with precision, often it just not is. Butler could have used ‘combine’ for ‘conflate’, ‘being incomparable’ for ‘incommensurability’, ‘illusory’ for ‘phantasmatic’. (For the courageous, I do recommend reading her book though, a key work in gender studies.)
There are pros and cons to the use of academic jargon, but one certain fact is that it makes academic articles impossible to read for anyone who is not already knowledgeable on that very same field. In fact, it just dissuades everyone to even try. This in turns prevents the spread of their discoveries.
Why do researchers too often write with such a complex style? An article on The Atlantic mentions a few possible reasons:
- They were trained to write like this, or even forced to get published.
- They are so immersed in their field that they do not realize how obscure their writing is.
- They might be elitist, purposefully writing esoterically — in order not to be understood by everyone.
- Writing in a clear, intelligible way is actually harder for them.
But we love knowledge. We love this burning feeling of getting smarter. This stunning sensation of expending our mind. This excitement of possessing various lenses to look at the world.
Which brings me to the point of this article: where on the Internet can we find academic level of knowledge that we can understand without being an expert, access to for free and go through without spending hours and hours doing so? Here is a reference list.
“Academic rigor, journalistic flair,” such is the motto of the website The Conversation. This Australian media outlet offers free articles written by academics from partner universities and edited by journalists. The design of the website is neat, the information is categorized and sub-categorized with tags and the search bar brings you where you want. (For bilinguals: their website is divided into regions, and besides “Global Perspectives” and the different English speaking countries, it is also available in French, Spanish and Indonesian.)
This international digital magazine offers profound and provocative articles and videos on science, philosophy, society, psychology and the arts. The content is synthetic, clear and written by experts of the field, sometimes in collaboration with university research groups and presses. The different parts of the website (essays, ideas and videos) and the search bar are easy to navigate through. A really great platform worth weekly visits!
British academic journal Nature is probably the most famous for science-related topics. Part of the website is barred by a paywall, but they still offer very extensive and comprehensive articles, often with infographics and videos on the trendiest researches. You can find those free articles on their homepage, on their news section and their opinion section. The research papers are classified by journals and subjects. Some are free but the majority only offer an abstract and figures. The website’s search and advanced search bars are efficient.
Giving inspiration through simple explanation and storytelling, such is Ted speakers’ method to spread their ideas. The topics covered are less thorough but generally more relatable. Ted’s website offers a range of format, from selected talks to short educational videos, blog posts and podcasts. A great way to broaden one’s views!
Open Yale Courses
There are a lot of top universities offering online courses and I come back to them further down, but Yale offers the purest university experience: introductory undergraduate courses taught by prominent scholars, filmed, subbed, and offered online along with reading materials, for free. Their 40 courses’ topics span to all fields of academia and are generally taught in 25 sessions of about 40 minutes each. The content is challenging and thorough.
Good Old Wikipedia
If there is one source of information that professors always warn against, it is Wikipedia. This collaborative free encyclopedia remains however everyone’s first stop to learn about something, for good reasons. The content is synthetic and clear, albeit risks of mistakes. Wiki Commons is working on a range of other sites to offer more rigorous content: WikiSource, WikiVersity and WikiBooks, all of which currently under construction. To be continued…
Journalists are professional content makers, and when they are not writing about or filming the latest news, many also use their skills to report on the latest researches. I’m not to say which are the best ones, but to try to give a global sample, I will mention The New York Times, Vice News, The BBC, Euronews, Al Jazeera, The Quint, Xinhua Net and Asahi Shimbun.
Documentaries are a great way to combine thorough information with clear explanations. And again there are millions to chose from. You can watch a great amount of them on Top Documentary Films, although its research options are limited. Rotten Tomatoes is another good place to find recommendations. BBC Documentaries, Times Documentaries or Netflix (provided you’re already subscribed) have great docs in store.
Directory of Open Access Journal
You got a very precise interest in mind and want to get your hands on actual academic articles discussing it? The DOAJ is made for you. This database contains 4 million articles from 13.000 open source academic journals from all fields and countries. If you know the author, journal, title or ISSN of what you are looking for, you should find it pretty easily. If not, arm yourself with patience.
Here are 3 platforms (among many) offering online courses. Those courses are usually a set of videos, questionnaires, readings, and discussions on the course forum. Some courses might have assignments, but that’s generally if you paid to enroll and get a certificate. The well-thought structure and community of online courses are great helpers to pursue self-learning.
- edX. The most famous with the big names: MIT, Harvard, UTokyo, but also Amnesty International or Microsoft. Lots of courses with free audit access, for everyone’s taste.
- Coursera. The other big one, with similar content and prestige. Read a comparison of those sites on Slant.
- Udacity. Mostly for computer science and professional training. You might struggle to find their free courses but they do have some (although less than edX and Coursera).
Podcasts and Radio
Want to learn while driving or cooking? Why not listening to podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify? There are again millions to chose from. This might give you some ideas. To give some myself, you could try NPR Podcasts, Vox Podcasts, The Atlantic Podcasts, BBC Podcasts… Check also for the podcasts from your favorite radio channels!
Writing on Medium, I ought to mention it. Medium content might be disparate as anyone (like… myself) can be writing anything on it, but curators and readers select the good content which will appear on top. While many articles are barred by a pay-wall, there is still much to read, like this article on where to find academic papers if you don’t have access to a university library.
Google and Common Sense
Now I have given the tip of the iceberg on where to find readable, free and synthetic knowledge online. This tip is probably the best to start from, but if you cannot find what interests you there, then of course Google is your friend, and your common sense your BFF. Beware of fake news, always ask yourself “how does this person know what s/he is saying?” and double, triple check information on trustful sites.
Access to knowledge still have room for much improvement. Writing this article, I felt at the same time inspired by the amount of sources of knowledge available on the Internet, and often disappointed by the difficulty to navigate through it and by the absence of some expected content. I couldn’t find for example convincing summaries of prominent thinkers’ works, with their key ideas explained, the particular terms they use defined… All this knowledge that is on university professors’ heads is still not accessible out here on the internet.
I am publishing this article wishing for constructive feedback. If you have read it this far, please share your ultimate sources of knowledge. I will try to edit it with the comments I get. Thanks!