Wikimedia/The History of Wikibooks/Growing Wikibooks

Until this page is expanded, see Wikipedia's treatment of the subject.

Here's a problem: it's one thing to write encyclopedia articles collaboratively. They are usually on specific, narrowly-focused topics, and it is clear what they require. Books, and even textbooks, by contrast, are very personal. There are thousands of ways to write an English composition textbook, or a textbook on C programming, or on physics. (That's why there are thousands of such textbooks.) What reason is there to think that any sufficiently knowledgeable person will want to put in the many, many hours required to write a textbook when he or she has to collaborate with others who do not share his or her understanding of what the book should look like? What would motivate anyone capable of developing a good textbook to do so with random strangers instead of either by him- or herself, or with trusted colleagues?

An answer: A Wikibook probably shouldn't expect to follow the traditional model of motivating a single author or two to write an entire book. It seems more practical for multiple authors to supply various modules while one or two editors massage the overall book into a consistent style. That way there's not too much load on any one person's shoulders.

That works de jure. De facto, there are not nearly enough editors to do this. Currently we have only about 1 to 2 editors per book average, and they do all the work. - SamE 02:29, 10 Dec 2004 (UTC)

3 October 2005:

A missing concept: I've been perusing the various Wikimedia projects looking for a suitable forum to collaborate on the creation of new knowledge. The Wikipedia clearly is inappropriate - it addresses that which is history or known to be true. Wikisource explicitly excludes original works of authorship. Wikibooks seems to confine itself to the narrow concept of a textbook, and the answer to the objection raised above implies the persona of the creator of a body of knowledge or work of authorship, or at least the explication of a body of knowledge, is unimportant. Wikisource, in contrast acknowledges this importance, and embraces the concept of "completion" by locking pages once typography and formatting are correct.

Creation of new knowledge is happening at Wikicities, the Metaweb, the original wiki, and many other wiki.

I submit that the concept of a book embraces more than the greater depth and breadth of content when compared to an encyclopedia. A book is an expression of a personal perception of truth or the union of a limited number of such personal perceptions, and the persona(e) of the author(s) is part and parcel of that expression. You can not anonymize Shakespeare, or Einstein, or Hemingway, or Dylan Thomas, or Buckminster Fuller, or any of the other well known and seminal historical contributors to human knowledge and culture. Why then should future contributors be clothed in gray uniforms and anonymous faces? Is such anonymity even possible in an original work? With books, there is such a thing as saying "there, now it is done, complete". Some single individual must have the authority to say it.

I was under the impression that some very significant contributions were made anonymously -- such as the Federalist Papers. I think that wiki allows people to contribute anonymously, if they should so choose, and also allows people to put their name on the book as one of its editors.

I would like to point out that the books of the Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Gilgamesh, the Vedas, and many other works far superior to Shakespeare or Hemingway are anonymous.

Wikibooks clearly does not provide such a tool, so I will suggest here what might be done to improve Wikibooks, or perhaps establish a new wiki project to address the needs. To begin with I give a simple list of requirements for me to participate:

1) Copy left is essential - I have no interest in conventional publishers, or proprietary exclusion of readers.

Wikibooks has this -- check.

2) A project format, where the initiator of a book is the principal Author/Editor/Administrator of that book.

I think there are already several Wikibooks that each have one person who declares himself the principle editor of that book.

3) A tiered editing environment:

a) the first tier is a traditional wiki - this facilitates contributions by geographically scattered authors - a meeting place.

b) the second tier is by invitation of the principal author - this allows the principal author to "edit" the contributors - excluding cranks and people with an incompatible approach. No harm is done - they can become principal author of another book derived from the first tier as a starting point. Tier 2 is not locked, but is protected by the principal author and his or her selected cadre of collaborators.

c) the third tier is a complete book - locked against modification, but subject to peer review, which may include those who had been excluded from contributing by the principal author. Peer review provides a markup mechanism for the benefit of the principal author. The principal author may incorporate or disregard markups at his or her discretion.

d) the fourth tier is release of the complete book combined with a wikireview mechanism, permitting readers to evaluate and rank what they read, so future readers may easily cull their selections. The released book, like Wikisource, is locked.

While we all agree that this intellectually sounds like it should work, Wikipedia already tried a tiered editing environment (Nupedia) -- and it didn't work. While I certainly am in favor of improving Wikibooks, "it sounds like it would work better" is irrelevant in the face of experimental evidence that it actually works worse. --DavidCary 20:28, 25 October 2005 (UTC)

4) I like to read in comfortable quiet places. To facilitate this, I download PDFs and read offline. A true wiki book would have considerable length, and would be available for download for the convenience of the reader. This, together with the originality of the works, makes the medium akin to a bookstore - an amalgam of a copy left publisher and a bookseller, where the price is always zero.

Wikibooks already support this point 4. For example, all the various modules of the "Computer_Science:Algorithms" book: moved to the "Algorithms" book are all gathered together (using transclusion) into one long book at : moved to "Algorithms/Print version" . (That page is broken.)

What I am proposing is not radical - it is the essential environment of an academic collaboration. It differs in that it is unencumbered by the necessity of signing away ones ownership rights, and, more significantly, in that it provides a means for people with common interests, who have never met, and who might never be able to meet, to productively collaborate, while excluding unwanted interference.

4 October 2005:

In addition to making some minor clarifications and correcting some typographical errors in the above text, I wish to address a few additional issues which occurred to me overnight (the URL of this contribution is different, because I am on a different machine - I am, however, the author of the 3 October text).


While I am aware that the formation of Wikiversity is nascent, and necessarily incompletely formed, it is interesting to me to note that the defining characteristics of Wikiversity are at present a caricature of the essential purpose of a university, namely the pursuit of truth. This necessarily begins with the study of what is already known, which may be accomplished in a rudimentary fashion merely by reading in an encyclopedia, for example the Wikipedia. It does not take long for this approach to become inadequate, and so we have textbooks, which serve as more focussed guides to those seeking understanding. Wikibooks was apparently created to address this need. But anyone serious about learning soon discovers textbooks are at best so much more wastepaper - glib, incomplete, and often misleading if not downright wrong.

So it is that the scholar inevitably takes his mission to a library, seeking a diversity of perspectives from a diversity of authors, in order to form his or her own perception of the truth. Wikisource does not qualify as a library because it excludes new works, and has no mechanism for including access to copyrighted material.

An eventuality that happens sooner for some than others, is that even the library is inadequate, and so the scholar strikes out on his or her own, expressing new ideas in scholarly journals (all of which are encumbered by onerous copyright restrictions), or book length original works of authorship.

Much of the current activity in developing Wikiversity seems to be concerned with testing, grading, and certification. All of these activities are irrelevant to the pursuit of truth, designed primarily to serve as barriers to encumber those who merely seek power. History has show us that these barriers have mixed effectiveness. To emulate such nonsense in the comparatively level playing field of the web strikes me as misguided at best.

Neutral POV:

While neutral POV is admirable for an encyclopedia entry, it is inappropriate for a book. A book is a focussed and elaborate expression of a point of view. In areas such as mathematics or science, that point of view is not necessarily an opinion. More often, it is a logical edifice, founded upon a small set of axioms or empirical data, which may be arbitrarily chosen. It is an elaboration of an abstraction of the author's experience and understanding. Requiring such an expression to be neutral undermines the purpose of pedagogy (the apparent purpose of a textbook), and utterly defeats the purpose of original authorship.

Free Access:

The historical case of Oliver Heaviside serves as a good example of how an improved wikibooks might shine. Heaviside was an uneducated outsider, whose original works were only able to find publication in serial form in a commercial magazine called "The Electrician". Heaviside's contributions to electrical engineering and mathematics were seminal and are now universally accepted. Is it not one of the fundamental purposes of Wikimedia to provide every human being with access to information, without exclusion? Isn't part of the philosophy of the wiki to enable every human to participate, without undue barriers, and to allow the readership to determine what endures? How many Oliver Heavisides have been crushed into obscurity by exclusionary policies? Do not the uniform policies of Wikimedia excluding original works in all of its venues constitute an exclusionary policy?

Vanity, Personal Autonomy, and Personal Responsibility:

An immediate objection to the ideas I am proposing will no doubt be the policy against vanity. It is agreed that vanity is an offensive human quality, but the issue of authorship is deeper than that. At the root of it are the founding concepts of a wiki: personal autonomy and personal responsibility.

It is personal autonomy that gives the wiki its power - everyone is equally accepted without undue suppression of contributions. But it is personal responsibility that holds autonomy in check - the perpetration of vandalism for example is limited to those few individuals who do not yet understand they are responsible for what they do. Were it not so, the problem of vandalism would be intractable.

Authorship, and its formal acknowledgment is nothing more than an abstraction of responsibility. If you write a book length tract of text, you are, for better or worse, responsible for it. It is authorship which holds you accountable, and such accountability is not vanity, for it is a sword which can cut both ways.