What Is Research?

October 31, 2009

Math websites falling into disuse?

Filed under: Uncategorized — vipulnaik @ 3:06 pm
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Since I recently blogged about Math Overflow website, I’ve been wondering what happened to various other math websites that once looked promising, and how they’re faring. Some of them seem to be going strong, but none of them seem to have been exploding in popularity.

Tricki

I blogged twice about Tricki, the Tricks Wiki, which went live in April 2009 (see the annoucement by Tim Gowers). Tricki held a lot of promise. Of late, the enthusiasm seems to have slowed down, though this might be a temporary phenomenon. The most recently created article and the most recent comments appear to be two weeks old as of today (October 27, 2009). According to Alexa data, the site has a rank of 1,200,000+ worldwide and about 550,000-600,000 in the United States. For comparison, subwiki.org, which I run, has Alexa data showing a site rank of 500,000-550,000 in the world and 150,000-200,000 in the United States, while Math Overflow has Alexa data showing a rank of 350,000 worldwide and about 60,000 in the United States (the numbers you see clicking on the links may be different if you don’t view this post within a few hours of my writing it).

Tricki also hasn’t been mentioned on Gowers’ blog since June 25, 2009 and on Terence Tao’s blog since August 2009.

Is the Tricki falling into disuse? Clearly, the initial spate of interst seems to have subsided, but it might well regain a slower and steadier momentum in some time.

Planetmath

I remember a time when Wikipedia had much less mathematical content than planetmath, which was one of the first places to check mathematics on the Internet. Planetmath appears to be going strong, though not as strong as before. While their message forum seems reasonably active, their latest addition was about a week ago, and they seem to be getting somewhere between 0 and 2 new articles in a day, and around the same number of revisions a day. Not exactly dead, but not bubbling with life. Their Alexa data indicates fairly steady performance with a traffic rank of around 130,000 over the last six months, but a decline over a longer timeframe — setting the drop-down parameter to “max” below the chart shows that their traffic rank and daily pageviews have been following over the longer run. Why? Decline in quality? Probably not — it’s more likely that people are increasingly using Wikipedia.

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April 18, 2009

Tricki goes live

Filed under: Tricki,Wikis — vipulnaik @ 3:42 pm
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A short while ago, I blogged about the Tricki, mentioning what I considered an unnecessary subservience to Wikipedia. At the time, Tricki was still pre-live. Recently, Tim Gowers announced that the Tricki is “fully live”, which means that anybody can create a login and add and edit entries.

The Tricki already has a reasonable number of decent articles — an interesting article that I located in group theory is: first pretend that a normal subgroup is trivial. Here’s a link to the list of group theory-related tricki articles. Here is a list of tags that can be used to navigate the tricki.

The concept of the tricki is interesting, and I suspect that a lot of interesting stuff will go on there in the next few months. On the other hand, the main problem I see with the Tricki is that, while it has a lot of useful tricks, there is no easy standard reference it can use for looking up more details of the terms and facts used. The current consensus seems to be to link to Wikipedia, but using only one resource, particularly a resource of dubious value, seems restrictive, particularly since the specific Wikipedia article pointed to may not be particularly good. Consider, for instance, this page where, in the comments, Gowers notes that he “wouldn’t mind being reminded” what a characteristic subgroup is.

Here is what I suggest. For each of the concepts, Tricki should have a short page giving the definition and useful links, and the links from the tricki article pages should point to this short page. This way, article writers can concentrate on writing their articles rather than on defining all the auxiliary concepts involved (particularly in cases where these auxiliary concepts are reasonably standard and known to many of the readers of the article).

The concept page could serve three roles:

  • A concise definition.

  • A list of related tricki articles (this could be automatically generated by backlinks, or manually created and organized).

  • A list of references/weblinks for more details. This list should be carefully curated, and people making such links should actually read the reference being linked to! Wikipedia could, of course, be one of the references typically given, but it need not be the only one.

Why do I think that separate concept pages are important? To take a totally different example, consider newspaper and magazine websites. Many of these websites have their own reference pages on a number of important topics — these reference pages provide a short summary, external links, as well as details of past coverage of the topic. For instance, The New York Times has Times Topic pages on almost all the things it reports on regularly, and its news articles have internal links to these Times Topic pages. While this is partly a tactic to maintain link juice, it also helps provide entry points for people seeking to get information on topics and get an overview of how the NYT has covered the topic. See, for instance, the Times Topic pages on Wikipedia, Twitter, and The Amazon Kindle. It seems to me that despite the presence of Wikipedia pages that may carry a lot more information, these Times Topic pages serve a useful function to readers who are interested in newspaper coverage of the material.

Also, there is something — a lot, in fact — to be said for keeping links largely internal, particularly when building up an extensively cross-referenced body of knowledge, information or insight. Part of Wikipedia’s success can be attributed to its policy of strong internal linking — extensive linking to other Wikipedia pages from within Wikipedia articles.

UPDATE: Gowers has started a forum discussion on some of the issues raised in this blog post.

April 6, 2009

Tricki salutes Wikipedia

Filed under: Tricki,Wikipedia,Wikis — vipulnaik @ 12:41 am
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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. (more…)

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