Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Candidates speak about Wikibooks

[[fr:b:User:Sub]] from the French Wikibooks, alerted us to some questions that he asked the board candidates specifically about Wikibooks. Some answers are missing, some are a little bit depressing, and some a brutally honest. Greg Kohs' answer, particularly, seems the meanest, here is an excerpt, where he talks about his observations in the [[US History]] book, one which is currently marked as a "featured book" on en.Wikibooks:
This chapter of UNITED STATES history includes multi-paragraph sections about Henning von Tresckow and Karl Dönitz, but no mention whatsoever of the Flying Tigers, the Doolittle raid, Aleutian Islands campaign, Rosie the Riveter, the Tuskegee Airmen, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, or rationing of consumer materials on the American homefront.

Am I the only one who finds this appalling? I would not want my daughter learning about the most significant events in American history this way.
He has a couple other criticisms of the book too, all of which are fair and deserved. He then goes on to discuss the culture of expert-exclusion that seems to be one of Wikimedia's hallmark features. I will posit that Wikibooks doesn't have that same problem, we have been not only tolerant but welcoming and encouraging to "experts". We've hosted a number of classroom-related projects, teachers and students working to produce very nice books. I've never heard a single disparaging remark from an expert about the culture of Wikibooks. In fact, the response has always been overwhelmingly positive.

I don't say this to try to disprove what Greg is saying above. I actually agree with him to a point and I don't take offense to people criticising the project. Wikibooks is young, but we are growing and improving. Perfection takes time, even wikipedia hasn't achieved it and they have us beat by two years and several million man-hours.

Writing a book is hard. Ignore the fact that your average book is just a tad longer then your average article (it's not uncommon for a mature book on Wikibooks to be several hundred pages long), there is a lot of stylistic issues that need to be dealt with. Beyond just having length, a book must be continuous: it must build logically from beginning to end, and it must teach along the way. We don't just present information, we must find ways to ensure the target audience can learn. Sometimes, this means we have to cover the same topics over and over again, in different ways for different people.

Wikibooks doesnt have the same mass as WP has, our authors are more spread out around the project. It's not uncommon for some of our users to toil in peace, not interacting with any other users at all. We tend to have about one active author per book, rarely a popular book can attract 2 or 3. This is a far cry from the "many hands" mantra that powers Wikipedia. Mistakes are easy to catch if you have dozens of people reading your book, harder if there are only a few, and near impossible if there is only one. People write what they know, and if a particular author doesn't have Rosy the Rivetter on the top of his head, it likely won't end up in the book.

This isn't a condemnation of Wikibooks, just an admission that we are small and need more people. Everybody needs more people, I read Larry Sanger's blog regularly and he's always trying to convince people to join Citizendium. I might even consider it too, if I had the time or the energy in me to participate in another project. From what I read and from what I hear in casual conversation, Wikibooks is a lot more similar to Citizendium then it is to Wikipedia.

Featured books on Wikibooks are designated rather informally. Sometimes a vote by as few as 4 or 5 people can seal the deal. Voter apathy plays a big part in this, many of our members would rather just write then discuss meta content all day. What we look for in our Featured Books is not perfection, that much should be obvious. We're looking for books which are comparatively good and which are a good model that other developing books can follow. The secret to our method is that books can be de-featured easily, and we do it regularly as the bar gets raised. As we increase our standards, new books rise to the occasion, and old books (like the US History book) fall out the bottom. Finding featured books that aren't good enough to be called "featured" anymore is not a condemnation of Wikibooks or our culture, it's an affirmation that our standards are higher now then they used to be. This is because our editors, while few, are hard working and dedicated. Perfection is the end goal, and Wikibooks is approaching it, slowly, incrementally. We do set reasonable interim goals for ourselves until we reach perfection, and we're not ashamed of that.


  1. Whiteknight, I'm happy that you didn't lambaste me in an ad hominem way for daring to criticize that particular Wikibook.

    Please trust that I dearly wish for excellent, high-quality free textbooks to emerge from the Wikibooks project. I simply feel that it was ridiculous to elevate the current United States History book to a "featured" status when it is quite obviously in dire need of expert editorial oversight.

    I am pleased to hear that Wikibooks does not culturally share Jimmy Wales' back-handed contempt for credentialed experts. Unfortunately, as long as Wales continues to run around acting the way he does, his attitude permeates ALL of the "wiki" projects, insofar as public perception moves south on the "Wikimedia" brand reputation.

    Frankly, I hope that Wales will soon step down from the Wikimedia Foundation and allow for the insertion and growth of outside "non-wiki" experts in content generation, editing, and publishing. That is the best way to disconnect the current "expert aversion" feedback loop.

    Best of luck to your project's future!

  2. Gregory,

    I'm glad that you've at least taken the time to come and look up some content on Wikibooks. That is a little more than most who criticize Wikibooks do.

    Just as a great many Wikipedia "Featured Articles" have been de-featured, a few previously noted books have also been "demoted". Perhaps the U.S. History book is one of those.

    When it was first selected, our current "Featured Book" program wasn't even started yet. We were doing something called "Wikibook of the Month" that suffered from similar kinds of problems as you relate here, and it should be pointed out perhaps why such books were featured at all.

    In the case of this U.S. History book, it was nearly the first major "traditional school textbook" that covered all of the basic sections that you would expect in a regular textbook and at least had some content for every one of the major epochs in American history. Sure, not all of the content was NPOV or even really all that accurate, but at least something was there for a person like you to gripe about in the first place. Perhaps you will help us out by even bringing this book up for some attention and getting some people interested in cleaning it up!

    I've been around since the days of Nupedia, and if I remember things somewhat (my age is getting to me, and that was what... nearly a decade ago?) Wikipedia was then derided as a side project with the "real effort" going into Nupedia. If you read the Wikipedia articles even in the first few years after it was created, some of them were as awful as what you describe here with this Wikibook... and much of the same arguments about the amazing thing not that it was awful but that something was written about the topic at all.

    I can only hope that Wikibooks improves. Over the years, I've seen a slow and steady increase in participation with Wikibooks, and one of the things that is consistently missed by the WMF board is that Wikibooks is now the #1 source of original copyleft book-length material. Yeah, I've couched that quite a bit, but it is an amazing accomplishment even so, with "competitors" even trying to reproduce the success of the project elsewhere. It certainly wasn't the U.S. History book that got us to that point.

    Is there room for improvement on Wikibooks? Heavens yes! Could we get better support from the WMF? I guess that is the real question.

    As for Jimmy Wales and his efforts in regards to Wikibooks, I could speak volumes on that topic alone. I do want to thank the guy for giving the initial support to Karl Wick when Wikibooks was first proposed. This was pre-WMF, and he essentially gave a blank check to Karl and others like Karl to go ahead and start the project. I'm glad he saw something useful in the idea, even though in the current climate I highly doubt that Wikibooks would ever have been started as a sister project.

  3. I have registered at English Wikibooks and have attempted to make initial improvements to the WWII chapter mentioned above.

    Success will not be rapid, nor will it ever be complete. But as a WMF Board candidate, I feel I am the only one making forceful, challenging suggestions for radical improvements. Namely, imagine user-optional advertising funding annual grants or scholarships to the very best Wikibooks editors, as selected by their peers?