More than numbers: WikiProject Mathematics
A 3D projection of a 4D-cube
performing a simple rotation about a plane which bisects the figure, is one of 29 Featured pictures
of WikiProject Mathematics
This week, we take our first in-depth look at WikiProject Mathematics. Started in November 2002 by Chas zzz brown, it is one of the top 15 most active projects, and has 331 members. The project is home to 24 Featured articles, 3 Featured lists, 35 Good articles, 17 Featured pictures and a Featured portal – with a total of 8,850 assessed articles. The Signpost interviewed seven project members.
Charles Matthews has been on Wikipedia since 2003, and has a doctorate in mathematics; Jakob.scholbach joined around 2005, working mainly on frequently viewed mathematics articles; Geometry guy was invited to join the project in 2007, and became involved in assessment and review; Ozob is a professional mathematician who joined in 2008 and has a soft spot for calculus articles; computer scientist and mathematician David Eppstein, who has his own article in Wikipedia, joined in 2006; Kiefer.Wolfowitz is a statistician who joined in 2009; while CBM became involved because he "found the idea of a public, comprehensive, free reference of that sort, very exciting".
Although the project has some 8,850 assessed articles, there are actually over 25,400 articles associated with it. We asked how project members keep up with all these, and if there are any plans to assess the other articles. According to CBM, keeping up with such a large number of articles is a daunting task, "Fortunately, some of the original members of the project set up useful bots that index our articles automatically. The List of mathematics articles and List of mathematicians are maintained by a bot, and these lists are used to create Wikipedia:WikiProject Mathematics/Current activity. These tools have allowed us to track the huge number of math articles without relying on manual effort or talk page tags. The main limitation in going beyond tracking to actual editing is the ratio of editor time to the number of articles needing improvement." Project members, including Ozob and David, watch the Current activity list, while Kiefer works to provide references and short improvements to core articles, while developing a few articles.
Geometry guy contributed to the assessment of around 2,000 mathematics articles in 2007, but believes that "doing more than this would require substantial concerted editorial efforts that could be better applied to other goals." David sees assessment as "most useful at the top end, where GA and FA status provide recognition to excellent articles and at the bottom end, where the lists of stubs and User:Mathbot/Most wanted redlinks are a good hunting ground for articles in severe need of improvement. For the rest, I'd rather spend my editing time improving article space rather than trying to decide whether an article is really B or C class and exactly how important it is".
Of the 8,850 assessed articles, there are some 4,053 Start-class articles and 3,401 stubs. What is the project doing to advance these articles? For Jakob, many of these short articles just contain a definition of some specific concept, "in which case, it is unlikely that they will get much longer anytime soon or at all. The main task for this type of articles is to provide accurate references; here steady progress is made. From my personal experience, such highly specific topics actually tend to be more satisfactory than articles on broader mathematical subjects which require much more expertise to write".
WikiProject Mathematics has numerous Featured content. How did the project achieve this and how can other projects work toward this? For Jakob, the project as a whole has an enjoyable, friendly atmosphere: "I found that the usual procedures ensuring a sound article quality such as Peer review and Good article nomination, work well. On the other hand, most members of WikiProject Mathematics don't seem to focus on working on recognized content. For example, Riemann hypothesis (worth $1.000.000) has been pushed to an FA-ish level by a group of editors, but was not nominated. Reviewers' expectations at the FA candidacy tend to be quite high as far as the accessibility of scientific articles to the "general public" is concerned. This is often the most challenging bit in having a successful GA or FA candidacy, given that most mathematical subjects rely on a rigorous, abstract language that is not part of usual daily life. One way to deal with this issue in a more systematic way might be a "non-peer review", or just a forum for editors to meet mathematically untrained editors willing to work together on the accessibility of advanced scientific articles, outside the rather hasty FA process."
According to Kiefer, "On Wikipedia, mathematical topics present few temptations for editors to engage in point-of-view editing or to make personal attacks; goodwill flows in discussions on exposition (focusing on the public's needs) and scope (applications and generalizations). The cooperative atmosphere in Wikipedia is similar to that in the world of mathematics, and more generally, in mathematical sciences such as computer science and statistics. At the end of a day of research or teaching, editing Wikipedia is a relaxing hobby for mathematical scientists."
"Articles on mathematics are under-represented in the GA and FA categories, which do have biographies of mathematicians. Improving mathematical articles to GA and FA status is especially challenging, because of the demand that articles be accessible to the reading public. Perhaps Wikipedia should feature more good articles on important topics rather than excellent articles on minor topics and trivia? Mathematical scientists worry that Wikipedia indulges in "slumming"—dumbing down its content and showing contempt for the public's intelligence and attention—neglecting the mission of true encyclopedias, which has been and should remain enlightenment. Wikipedia should inform the populace rather than popularize infamy and so oppose the commercialism of the mass media," Kiefer added. He further suggests that Wikipedia should highlight mathematics and science on its main page, "and refrain from promoting Pokémon, pornography, and professional wrestling on Did you know?."
CBM does not think the lack of FA nominations as necessarily negative: "It has been said that Wikipedia is not a unified work, it's a collection of mostly-independent specialist encyclopedias that share goals and build on each other. Only a few members of the mathematics project have been active in nominating articles for FA status; the most recent promotion was Euclidean algorithm in 2009. I don't view this as entirely a bad thing. On a site the size of Wikipedia, there will naturally be differing visions of what an ideal article should be. One of the strengths of Wikipedia is we accommodate such a wide range of topics and writing styles." Charles believes that mathematics is different when it comes to featured content, "the FA criteria don't fit that well with what survey articles in the subject typically try to do, and we are still wrestling with the consequences for exposition. It isn't easy".
We asked what the most pressing needs for WikiProject Mathematics are, and how a new contributor can help. Charles identifies four areas, "better biographies, particularly for mathematicians outside the English-speaking world; connected historical coverage; referencing; and expository work, for topics up to first-year graduate level, through gradual expansion of material which although accurate, may be "impacted" and short of standard motivating remarks and heuristics". Ozob says that the most important way someone can help is by notifying the project of what is not clear, and feels that good exposition is their biggest problem, not just as a WikiProject but as a profession: "There's hardly any mathematical exposition for the layman anywhere. And that's despite there being some fascinating stuff which can be explained in very elementary terms. ... The WikiProject has an especially big problem with math articles that have applications to the sciences and engineering. Non-mathematicians frequently try to read those articles and end up stymied by thickets of abstraction, because we often discuss modern mathematical methods that are very abstract but very powerful. But sometimes it's our fault; we think like mathematicians, our reliable sources are written by mathematicians, and without meaning to, we sometimes end up writing for mathematicians."
Kiefer suggests that mathematics instructors should consider donating lecture-notes to appropriate articles. "More generally, graphical donations enliven articles and increase their appeal. Instructors in computational geometry and computer graphics should encourage their students to contribute, perhaps for course projects. Maybe the Wikipedia Foundation should give a special award recognizing the graphical donations by David Eppstein, Oleg Alexandrov, and others?" he added. "WikiProject Statistics has hard-working cadre like Qwfp and Melcombe, and we all would welcome new members. Personal invitations have recruited some great editors, but I am embarrassed at not having invited a professional colleague to join the project, yet! Perhaps the Wikipedia Foundation should hire staff for the mathematics project, or project members could write a letter appealing for volunteers in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society?"
CBM's recommendation is for new editors to pick a stub article on a topic that they have some knowledge about, and expand it into something a little longer. For Geometry guy, "The project has done really well in providing references for the expert, but we need to draw more readers in, while also defending the importance of specialist content to the encyclopedia. Mathematics is a stark example of this tension, but not the only one: I heartily recommend the essay Many things to many people (written primarily by Markus Poessel) for wider discussion."
We'll be Bach next week with a classic project. Until then, let our previous work serenade you in the archive.