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Social epistemology and online knowledge exchange

Matthews, Paul

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Dr Paul Matthews
Senior Lecturer in Information and Data Science


This document summarises the submitted research which has investigated online knowledge exchange and related it to the philosophical field of social epistemology. The broad aims have been: firstly to investigate what social epistemology theory can offer in the way of guidance and evaluative frameworks for the design of knowledge systems; and secondly, to determine what the empirical study of knowledge exchange platforms can tell us about epistemology as emerging from online practice. The submitted work consists of six papers that are a mixture of review/position papers and reports of empirical investigation. These have been published in information science journals and conference proceedings. However, following the established tradition of information science, the work is positioned as being cross disciplinary in ambition.

After introducing the submitted papers and the inspiration for the research, the main theoretical positions of the research are outlined and justified. These were a naturalised social epistemological position, inspired by Alvin Goldman, but widened to a situated and systems-oriented view. The naturalised view of epistemology allows for consideration of evidence from psychology, and here some key theories in social and cognitive psychology are outlined. Finally, as the subject is human-computer-human interaction, the sociotechnical setting is established. Further, the main platforms of study in the empirical work — social question answering systems — are introduced and described.

The main methodology and research approaches followed are presented next. A mixed methods philosophy was deemed suitable for this area of research and — alongside the review work — the broad web science method of combining network and data investigation with qualitative methods is justified. Review work included early collaborations with an information scientist and a philosopher which helped to bring together and clarify epistemological and sociotechnical themes.

The discussion section presents some of the main themes and conclusions of the submitted work, including: 1) The identification of knowledge patterns and practices online; 2) Criteria for online knowledge exchange distilled from the social epistemology literature; 3) Some triangulations where theory from philosophy and psychology seemed to corroborate and serve to explain online behaviour; 4) Socio-temporal aspects to online knowledge exchange that are perhaps under developed in philosophy but apparent in practice; 5) Credibility cues and bias, seen as crucial to a rounded study of user interaction with online sources; and finally 6) Interventions suggested by the research which would aim to raise the quality and effectiveness of social media knowledge systems.

Finally, conclusions and suggestions for further work are presented. These follow on from the submitted strands of research and present possibilities for how the work may be extended and improved upon. In common with the research, these combine philosophy, modelling, interaction design and qualitative methods. Such a combination is seen as essential to developing an enhanced understanding of how the web serves and could serve as a platform for human knowledge.


Matthews, P. Social epistemology and online knowledge exchange. (Thesis). University of the West of England. Retrieved from

Thesis Type Thesis
Publicly Available Date Jun 5, 2019
Keywords knowledge, epistemology, social epistemology, online communities, QA, social question-answering, social media, information science, credibility
Public URL
Award Date Dec 7, 2015


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