What Is Research?

April 6, 2009

Tricki salutes Wikipedia

Filed under: Tricki,Wikipedia,Wikis — vipulnaik @ 12:41 am

Tim Gowers of Polymath fame announced in this blog post the release of a Prelive version of Tricki. Tricki stands for “tricks wiki”, and Gowers has been working on it for quite some time along with Olof Sisask and Alex Frolkin, as he mentioned in this earlier blog post. The eventual aim is to make the wiki open to general editing, though in the current “pre-live” stage, people can only view content and add comments, rather than edit the actual content.

As of now, it seems an interesting experiment, but the current scope appears too broad and vague. A more detailed review will take some time coming, but one thing already caught my eye: this page. All the editing, except page creation and a minor formatting change, seem to have been done by Gowers (view the revision history to confirm), so I’ll attribute the writing to Gowers.

Titled Why have a separate site rather than simply use Wikipedia?, the page tries to provide a “justification” for the Tricki. Some of the statements here depress me.

To begin with, the very premise of the heading seems mistaken. There are very good reasons why the kind of content on Tricki cannot and should not be on Wikipedia, and these reasons are Wikipedia’s own clearly stated policies, such as No original research, Notability, Reliable Sources, and verifiability. Or, just take a look at What Wikipedia Is Not, and it is clear that the kind of content that the tricks wiki currently contains and plans to expand into is not the kind of content allowed on Wikipedia.

Thus, Gowers’ statement:

In principle, it would be possible to write Tricki articles and put them on Wikipedia.

is just false! Yes, it would be possible technically, or “in practice”, and most of these articles would become candidates for deletion as per Wikipedia’s deletion policy. In other words, Gowers’ tone that Tricki could in principle be a part of Wikipedia but they’re making a different choice for their own sake is misleading: Tricki does not have the choice to become a part of Wikipedia, and going it alone is the only practical alternative.

It is good that Gowers spells out the advantages of having a tricks wiki in its own right, all of which are valid points, but the language used in this regard is disingenuous and misleading.

Next, Gowers writes:

There is also a hidden-text feature that makes it possible to signal to the reader that a fuller explanation is available if needed. This means that one can write an article without stopping to give basic definitions or explain easy proofs, but one can also include these basic definitions and easy proofs in a hidden form that can be revealed at the click of a mouse by those who would like them. This feature, which Wikipedia does not have, makes it possible to write an article that can be read comfortably by mathematicians of widely differing experience.

Actually Wikipedia does have this feature. It requires Javascript, and is not widely used, but it can be seen at some places, for instance, here (permalink to current revision in case the show/hide is removed in future edits). As far as I can make out, the use of this feature is not generally encouraged for articles, so that may be what Gowers meant (or, he may not have encountered this feature).

The part of the article I find most disturbing, though, is this:

For example, an article explaining what a Banach space is belongs on Wikipedia, whereas an article giving methods for proving that a norm is complete belongs on the Tricki. Of course, we expect there to be many links from Tricki articles to Wikipedia articles (and indeed there is a formatting feature that makes it particularly easy to insert such links). These links will greatly reduce the need for Tricki articles to define mathematical terms such as “vector space” or “manifold” or “group”. If the Tricki is a success, we hope that there will be many links in the opposite direction as well.

There seems to be an underlying assumption (I may be mistaken here) that Gowers is saying that all material involving what Gowers calls “subject matter” belongs to Wikipedia, and havin anything else just for subject matter is redundant. Read: “If all one is trying to do is create subject matter, then there isn’t the need for anything beyond Wikipedia.” Further, Gowers seems to hope that Tricki will depend on Wikipedia (the free encyclopedia that anybody can edit) to provide the staple of subject matter that the Tricki can then refer to. In other words, Wikipedia is the place for subject matter. Finally, Gowers hopes for inverse recognition from Wikipedia — the ultimate achievement?

Does Gowers, an acclaimed Fields Medalist and excellent problem-solver, really consider Wikipedia’s entries as the hallmark of excellence, or even as a suitable starting point for mathematics researchers to learn subject matter? Even if he does, does he really believe that anything involving “subject matter” belongs to Wikipedia — that there is no rationale for anything purely to do with subject matter to live independently of Wikipedia? Finally, does he believe that the core of Wikipedia is something that Tricki can just build over?

Not to put too fine a point on it, Wikipedia is a general-purpose encyclopedia. Even assuming that Gowers is more of a fan of Wikipedia than I am, it is still a general-purpose encyclopedia. Even in its most idealistic form, even as per its own policies, it is not a great place to get subject matter. The structuring and organization of entries, the manner of writing and the form of linking may be great for a general-purpose encyclopedia, but they are not optimal for learning or using math.

The natural conclusion here seems to be that Gowers lacks the imagination to believe that subject matter can be structured in any way superior to what it currently is on Wikipedia, but I find that hard to believe. A more likely possibility is that, like many academics excited at the whole new world of collaboration opened up by the Internet and the exciting possibilities that Wikipedia points at, compared with the olden pre-Internet pre-collaboration days, Gowers doesn’t want to sound too critical of Wikipedia. A sense of indebtedness, perhaps? Yet another possibility is that Gowers wants to keep the “Why have a separate …” page simple and appealing to Wikipedia-lovers, even to the point of being misleading, and hence bows to the assumption that Wikipedia is “the place” for subject matter.

UPDATE: Gowers made a recent change to the Tricki justification page. It is possible (though unlikely) that my blog post might have something to do with this (a trackback to the blog post appeared on the comments to Gowers’ post, and he may have actually read the entry. In any case, this change has little effect on the content of the arguments I make in this post.



  1. […] goes live Filed under: Tricki, Wikis — vipulnaik @ 3:42 pm A short while ago, I blogged about the Tricki, mentioning what I considered an unnecessary subservience to Wikipedia. At the […]

    Pingback by Tricki goes live « What Is Research? — July 7, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

  2. […] blogged twice about Tricki, the Tricks Wiki, which went live in April 2009 (see the annoucement by Tim Gowers). […]

    Pingback by Math websites falling into disuse? « What Is Research? — December 18, 2009 @ 4:03 am

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