Sunday, August 26, 2007

Algebra I in Simple English

A bit of a discussion has arisen around the en.wikibooks book [[Algebra I in Simple English]]. This book was originally created on en.wikibooks as a simplified version of the [[Algebra]] textbook. There are a whole host of other issues relating to the algebra textbook that will have to be addressed in a different post.

The "Algebra I in Simple English" book was imported onto the simple.wikibooks project, and tagged as a speedy delete on en.wikibooks. One admin had already started on page deletions (although luckily didnt get too far) before complaints were raised and the issue was changed from a speedy delete to a VfD discussion.

On the VfD, the majority of en.wikibookians appear to be in favor of keeping the book, even if it's forked to another project. Of the votes cast by simple.wikibookians, they seem to be in favor of either deleting the book or else protecting it. Here are some comments posted by simple.wikibookians:

  1. "There are very few active contributers to this book and forking it into two projects will only harm the progress of the book." I would say in retort that there are very few members total at simple.wikibooks, and that the long-term prospects for any book are better at en instead of simple because of our higher reader and contributor volume. If the book doesn't have any contributors currently, it's likely a matter of bad timing.
  2. "There can always be a link on the Math bookshelf to the version on SE Wikibooks." We have a mechanism that we already use to create interwiki links. If anything, we should add a [[Simple:Algebra I in Simple English]] iw link to our copy of the book. en.wikibooks bookshelves are used to organize our books, and are not used as a general directory for wikimedia resources from other projects. We don't list on our math bookshelf all the mathematics books that are on en.wikisource or all the math-based courses that en.wikiversity has either.
  3. "...protecting the page from editing to encourage only one active version of the book" It's simply not our policy not to encourage people to contribute to a book. Wikibooks, in any language, doesnt just host pre-written books, we provide for people to create new content. If we are going to host a copy of the book at all, we are going to enable people to contribute to it. Beyond that, we have a policy against internal forks of material, but we have no policy on en.wikibooks against forks to an external project. En.wikibooks has only one version of this book, and we intend to encourage participation in it.
What other projects do or do not do, and what kinds of materials other projects host really can't be a factor in the decisions that we make. Collaboration between projects is fine and should be encouraged, but when it comes to deleting large volumes of content because another project might be trying to host a version of it, a certain amount of caution should be exercised.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


I received an email today from a college professor who is interested in starting two new wikibooks on the subject of education. He pointed me to his website, where he has written research papers on the use of Wikibooks to facilitate learning. The one paper, titled simply "Wikibook AERA paper" is a good read and talks a lot about Wikibooks, the WMF, and the various sister projects. Specifically, it talks about the differences between novices to wikibooks, and "wikibookians" who are experienced wikibooks experts. Wikibooks novices, according to the study, appear to be more focused on individual accomplishments, while experts tended to be more driven by the community as a whole. Also, experts tended to be more optimisitic about the wiki development process (better expectations that a book could be "completed", more convinced that wiki was a valuable educational tool, etc).

Another point that is touched on, albeit briefly, was the idea that people new to Wikibooks were uncomfortable in posting incomplete or messy work. The authors surmise that school children are so trained to hand in a "final draft" and receive a grade for it, that they become uncomfortable brainstorming or posting something that isnt perfect online. It's not a bad hypothesis, i think.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Book Donations: Updates

I've been talking with mr [[Frederick Noronha]] about donating open-content books to Wikibooks, I've written a previous post about this, and I wanted to post a quick update. Mr Noronha has secured rights from the original author to release the first book, but apparently there is an issue because the original illustrator is unwilling to release the books images under an acceptable license. The question has been posed to me: is it okay to upload the book sans the images? The answer: yes. I mentioned a couple points:
  1. Most books on Wikibooks are works-in-progress. Most books are missing necessary images
  2. We have a whole mess of images at commons, we can probably find some suitable replacements
  3. Wikimedia contains a whole bunch of artists. I'm even passable with inkscape in a pinch. We can make new images to replace the old ones.
I'm waiting for the next reply, but hopefully this will smooth out the process.

Dynamic Categorization System

For a long time, English Wikibooks has been using a system of manually-maintained lists to help keep books organized. Historically, when a new book is created, we needed to:
  1. Add a link to the book on {{New}}, and remove the last book from the list.
  2. Add a link to the book on the appropriate bookshelf (we have 26 different shelves)
  3. Add a link to the book on the bookshelf's template
  4. Add a link to the book on the alphabetical list
  5. Add a link to the book on the appropriate Dewey Decimal category page
  6. Add a link to the book on the appropriate Library of Congress page
  7. Apply any additional categories to your book to help keep it organized.
As anybody can readily see, new book authors are either inundated with work, or else they skip a few steps and then the books aren't properly listed. The net result is a series of lists, many of which are horribly outdated, none of which are complete. In short, the system was very unhelpful and disorganized.

A better system is on the horizon, however, and change is already happening. Dewey Decimal, Library of Congress, and alphabetical listing systems were changed from manually-updated lists to a category-based system. Luckily, since books are already listed by subject on the various bookshelves, bots have been successfully employed to apply the necessary categories to existing books. Applying these categories to new books is trivial.

A bug request has been submitted to create a new meta-organizational "Subject:" namespace. This namespace, along with a comprehensive category system and DPL will allow us to have all sorts of different listings: "Subject:Geometry books", "Subject:Books for Children", "Subject:Books using BE850", "Subject:Books that meet the California public school curricula", etc.

Once we have a more comprehensive organizational system, some people have even suggested that we could list books from other sites, such as Wikisource, or Simple.Wikibooks. That may be a little too progressive (and requiring of more manpower then we could muster), but it really shows where the Wikibooks organizational system is headed: up.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Adminship and recognition

en.wikibooks has a policy, often the center of controversy, that inactive sysops are deadmined after a period of time. The justifications for, and the arguments against are both numerous, so I won't discuss them here.

There is always some opposition to this process, and the most recent round of it is proving to be the most controversial yet. Up for deadminship are three editors who played a large role in Wikibooks at the beginning of the project, but who have all since been completely absent for over a year. One of those admins, having had a particularly large role in the foundation of the Wikibooks project, was immediately re-nominated for adminship after the de-adminship process ended. If I may quote my fellow Wikibookian, Rob Horning:

Since the desysopping is a "done deal", I'm formally requesting that those who are interested to express perhaps a sort of "honor" upon this user that is deserving and experience has shown has not been abused at all.

I do understand this sentiment, and I really wish this were the case. However, adminship isn't some kind of "honor" that we bestow on people, it isnt a badge of accomplishment. The last thing we want is for admins to become some kind of aristocracy, and we don't want it to become a popularity contest either. My opinion has always been that admin tools are given to people who need them, and are returned when not needed. There are, of course, plenty of people who disagree with me on this, but I truely believe that adminship really is no big deal.

In lieu of using an honorary admin title, how do we recognize people who have had a large and beneficial impact on the project? Barnstars don't quite cut it (although they can be very nice). A "Featured user", or "User of the week" or something would also be nice, but i can just foresee it degrading into a mud-slinging popularity contest. A "user hall of fame" might be nice, where we could induct only inactive members, but i can't think of a way to do it judiciously.

And in the end, the greatest strength of wikimedia projects is that they are, nominally at least, flat. There is no definite hierarchy or aristocracy. There are plenty of cases where users draw a disproportionate amount of respect from their fellow users, but that respect is typically hard-earned over a long career of contributing and helping. Doing anything to set particular users up on a pedastool really defies the whole system, and serves to decrease the inherent equality among users.

Simple English Wikibooks

A message was posted today on the english wikibooks [[bulletin board]] about a related project, the simple english wikibooks. Simple English WB apparently has reached the milestone of 100 book pages. Looking through their recent changes, I can see why this is such a big milestone: over the past week or so the project has averaged about 25 edits per day, from only about half a dozen contributors.

I have to wonder why simple english wikibooks is so small compared to en.wb. There are many potential factors:
  1. No advertising. People simply don't know that there is a simple-language alternative to the regular english wb. I know that our project doesnt advertise for it, and it's hard to find anybody on meta or in the foundation really pushing for simple english to become more widely adopted.
  2. Direct competition. en.wb already contains books for many audiences: books for children (in the form of Wikijunior), books for school students, etc. Some of our books even specify that they will be written in a particular english dialect, such as british english or "e-prime". Each book is empowered to have a local "manual of style" to help keep all it's pages synchronized, and many books take the effort to specify what language and vocabulary is going to be used.
  3. Less versatility. Editors on simple english wikibooks can write books in simple english. On en.wb, authors can write simple and they can write complex. We can write books for children and university graduate students without having to log in to a different server. Of course, once SUL happens this will be much less of an issue. Readers, also, have the benefit of being able to progress from simple books to harder books without having to switch projects.
I don't mean to be disparaging, because i've seen the work on that project and I'm very impressed by the skill and dedication of their workforce. However, the fact remains that en.wikibooks likely has more books written in simple english then simple.wb has. Top that off with Wikijunior, our popular children's book project which attracts much attention from people who want to write in simplified english, and regular efforts to duplicate curricula for school curricula, and it seems that simple.wb has quite an uphill battle.

I do believe that the two projects should be merged. Not because simple.wb has failed in any way, but because they would benefit from our environment with more readers, more writers, more infrastructure, and a closer proximity to other efforts such as Wikijunior. It makes good sense to me, and I hope that other people seriously think about it.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

ICT Policy Handbook

A while ago english Wikibooks received a donation of books from the UNDP APDIP. Because the arrangement has been such a successful one, I have been contacted via email about additional book donations. One of the books being donated now is the ICT Policy Handbook.

An astute observer will notice that the handbook is listed as being released under CC-BY-NC-SA, a license which is not allowed on Wikibooks because of it's NonCommercial clause. This is the reason why the book hasn't been uploaded already. We are working with the author to ensure that the book is properly released under the GFDL, with the images and PDF file versions being uploaded under an acceptable license (probably CC-BY-SA 2.5, or cross-licensed with GFDL, etc).

The text of the email I received paints a very hopeful picture for this partnership:

Could you help to make this possible? It could surely be a win-win game, with this title (and possibly more in the pipeline) adding value to Wikibooks, and Wikibooks giving [sic] the added readership that not-for-profit projects could well do with.

To conclude, some good news here. I'm working on a project to set up an alternative publishing firm of my own, again not-for-profit
and I hope to get the books out in either CreativeCommons2.5Attribution or GFDL or some such suitable license. So I'll probably be coming back shortly with more proposals. Keep up your good work, guys!

The mentions of other books in the "pipeline" and future "proposals" are certainly exciting.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Books for "new" Audiences

I'm writing a short response to an article i saw on slashdot:

Danica McKellar, a television star, has written a mathematics textbook aimed squarely at teenage girls. Some people may think that this effort is wasted, or that it is sexist, but I think it's brilliant. Traditionally, mathematics and the sciences has been a domain for men, and few girls pursue studies in these areas. A big part of it is that young women are simply never exposed to math and sciences, and never develop an interest. If we look at the numbers of women who graduate from college in these areas (mathematics, science, engineering), the numbers will prove the point: the overwhelming number of graduates in these areas are male.

Part of a good book is a focus on the target audience. While many of our books are very generic and tend to focus on the "traditional" audiences, some of them have taken steps to focus their attention on others. Mostly this comes in the form of trying to take information that is typically intended for one audience, and present it to a new audience. Some good examples of this are [[Algebra I in Simple English]], [[Geometry for elementary school]], and Wikijunior's [[World War II]]. These, of course, are all attempts to focus material at readers who are younger then the traditional audience, not necessarily attempts to present information at a different group entirely.

Math and science books written for young girls would be a great start in making the intellectual playing field much more even. Even this one idea is not enough, Wikibooks is always searching for intrepid authors who are willing to present old information in new ways. Some of our books are very traditional, but we are also starting to see many new books created that are far from it. It's a trend that I hope will continue.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Unrepresented at Wikimania

A cursory glance shows that there isn't anybody talking about Wikibooks at this years Wikimania. For that matter, very few of the sister projects are even mentioned. Cormack Lawler is doing some presenting on the topic of Wikiversity (which I'm very glad about), and Craig Spurrier is doing some talk about Wikinews, but by and large the remainder of the sister projects are unrepresented. I have to wonder if so many of the sister projects aren't well represented just because of the large divide between where Wikimania is being held, and where most of the editors are among the sister projects?