Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | April 1, 2008

Professors Should Embrace Wikipedia

Mark A. Wilson in Inside Higher ED:

I propose that all academics with research specialties, no matter how arcane (and nothing is too obscure for Wikipedia), enroll as identifiable editors of Wikipedia. We then watch over a few wikipages of our choosing, adding to them when appropriate, stepping in to resolve disputes when we know something useful. We can add new articles on topics which should be covered, and argue that others should be removed or combined. This is not to displace anonymous editors, many of whom possess vast amounts of valuable information and innovative ideas, but to add our authority and hard-won knowledge to this growing universal library.

By the way, what are you thinking of the quality of mathematics entries in Wikipedia?


  1. The quality of mathematics entries in Wikipedia is (as expected) very uneven. Some areas seem to be quite well covered, with entries quite seriously written that explain well the basics and allow the interested person to go deeper.

    However, in my field (Model Theory), I believe we are still very far away, both in coverage of important subjects, and in the quality of the entries themselves, from the level of other areas.

  2. I found wikipedia articles on math quite nice. but most of the time if I want more technical information, I go to mathworld.

  3. I agree with the above comments. Most of the entries are accurate, though incomplete. Some have grammatical errors, and I usually correct those when I see them. Occasionally, the entries are not what I think they should be for a broad audience. For example, I am currently working on a presentation for my Algebraic Topology II class on classifying spaces of groups. The definition on Wikipedia is very abstract, and hardly mentions the beautiful, concrete construction (due to Milnor?) of the classifying space of a discrete group. Of course, I’ll probably update that page after the semester is over to include some of the material in my presentation. Wikipedia is improving all the time, and professionals and graduate students certainly have a big role to play. I know that Wikipedia has been enormously helpful to me in math, and I’ve also spent dozens of hours miscellaneously clicking through it learning loads of interesting facts.

  4. I edit Wikipedia, including math articles, and I agree that the content is a bit uneven. In particular, the articles on basic concepts are often poorly organized, though there’s been a lot of improvement in the last year or so.

    In general, I think that the sort of topics undergraduate students (math students, that is) encounter tend to be pretty good, but the coverage of more advanced topics is mostly islands of good articles surrounded by oceans of marginal ones. I keep promising myself I’ll do something about that, but, alas, I keep putting it off.

  5. It is important to note that Wikipedia forbids original research, which I understand as meaning that you can’t write an article about your own work. This is rather unfortunate for mathematics in less populous fields.

  6. Lucas, why not get your students to upate the page as one of their assignments? It might provide them with additional motivation to not only understand the topic, but to understand it well enough to explain it to others.

  7. As a non mathematician I often find the articles extremely heavy going and assuming a lot of knowledge that I dont have. They go very rapidly from the briefest of outline to the seriously heavy without the semi-digested that I could understand

  8. Yeah, Dr Rick. How am I supposed to tell everyone about knot covariants (opp. invariants) without Wikipedia? I suppose I just have to write it up on my weblog (also papers) and hope someone else makes an article.

  9. The “no original research” requirement doesn’t forbid you from writing about your own work. It only forbids you from putting things into articles that haven’t already been published and peer-reviewed elsewhere.

    The bigger problem would be likely to be the “notability” requirement, which requires that you be able to demonstrate that whatever you’re writing an article on is a topic which is regarded as important by people other than yourself and your collaborators. 🙂

    The relevant pages are:

  10. Ah, that’s interesting, Steve. It seems to me, then, that “notability” is already taken care of – if it’s published in a reputable journal, that is (supposed to) imply exactly that.

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