Friday, October 27, 2006

A New Manifesto by Jimbo

A recent posting on the Wikibooks "textbook" mailing list by none other than the co-founder of Wikipedia and the current chair of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, Jimmy Wales, lists a manifesto regarding Wikibooks and its future. (my description of the post, not his)

This is a sort of follow up to the earlier post he did on the Wikipedia list where he tried to get people to try and think really big about what sorts of things could be done with Wikimedia projects if money was no serious object in terms of what could be obtained. Supposedly some people with some very serious amounts of money are thinking of doing some stuff like buying copyrighted works and then giving them to the WMF to be released as copyleft type content in some way. Copylefted textbooks are specifically mentioned here.

In particular, the concept was brought forth to consider what sorts of things could be added to Wikibooks to encourage the development of a standards-based textbook. As it stands right now Wikibooks does not offer any substantially completed content that is even trying to meet the curriculum requirements of K-12 educational institutions, and replies when back and forth about that issue in subsequent postings.

One thing that stood out for me in a reply by Sanford Forte, the current director of the California Open Source Textbook Projects, was that they have moved their actual development efforts to Wikibooks, and using their website mainly as an advertising and organizational tool. It doesn't surprise me as there are several other groups that are doing the same sort of thing, especially the South African FHSST (Free High School Science Texts) like the FHSST Physics book that was moved to Wikibooks a couple of years ago. In this regard, Wikibooks has become the #1 place to do this collaborative effort even though other efforts certainly are being done as well.

My counter argument (also posted on textbook-l) is that I am not entirely sure that you can get your best bang for the buck by simply purchasing copyrighted material. I contend that you can create new content for far less money simply by trying to offer incentives of some sort or teaming with the right people to help produce the content.

One thing that needs to be made clear here is the philosohpy that Jimbo has now for Wikibooks that is emphasizing the textbook nature of the project. I have been leading the "Wikibooks is for more than textbooks" philosophical school which at times seems to be running counter to the efforts of Jimbo from time to time. There is common ground that we can work together and certainly I'm not opposed to development of textbooks on Wikibooks. The whole idea at the very, very beginning was to provide a wiki environment to make textbooks, but I would argue that the mission was expanded substantially during the first year in particular.

For anybody reading this... I am curious about other wild ideas that could be developed, presuming that a wise spending of a large amount of cash could be used to enhance Wikibooks in one way or another. Hiring full time copy editors? Sponsoring prizes for books on specific topics? Buying existing textbooks?

A number of outstanding ideas have already been presented in multple forums on this topic, but it certainly is food for thought.


Curt Beckmann said...

Hi Robert,

I'm obviously a bit late to the party here, but very excited about free content textbooks. In particular, I'm interesting in printing and distributing in poor countries. Textbooks are painfully expensive in the US, and yet not prohibitive through high school at least (in the sense that most people go to high school here). Not so in, for example, Togo.

I got referred to you by RobinH at Wikibooks. Looked like you were taking a break from WB, so I came here.

I checked the links to Jimbo's comments, but apparently they've gone stale.

Do you know about any efforts focusing on printing low cost or subsidized free content for developing nations?


Robert Horning said...

In regards to the printing for developing countries, I would like to see a good publisher for GFDL content in the USA. Actually, that is something I've been working on off and on to try and get something put together.

As far as developing nations printing stuff up, I think it would be a good idea for somebody local to the area where the content is going to be distributed to do the printing. With this content being available under the terms of the GFDL, you or anybody else is certainly capable of using this content and publishing it themselves, without even a concern about copyright as you have a license to print this freely.

Surprisingly, I am currently in communication with a company in China that is seeking to help me out with some of the printing that may help significantly reduce the printing costs. If this works out, I may be able to offer Wikibooks much cheaper than being able to go through Lulu Press, as has been used so far.

Just to give an idea here of typical Wikibook costs, I printed up a copy of the Wikijunior Solar System book and it cost me about $40 USD for just two copies. In low volumes (< 1000 for a print run) I could get that down to about $10, with the images all in black and white by publishing in the USA. I'm hoping to do much better than that with this opportunity from China, but I'll have to see.

One of the things that must be remembered when you deal with the print industry is that cost go down significantly as you increase the volume of what you are printing. I hope that at least for English language texts we can get that price down significantly.

I hope that eventually if this effort is successful that we may even be able to help out in getting publishers set up on 3rd world countries, but that is something that is going to require some significant capital. This is also something that the Wikimedia Foundation is not going to be capable of doing with the resources that they currently have, although there may be some non-profit groups that may be willing to help join in.

David Gerard said...

"I would like to see a good publisher for GFDL content in the USA."

Sell the idea to O'Reilly. They're reasonably experienced at making money from open content. Or use them as a successful example when selling the idea to their competitors.

Gregory Kohs said...

Robert, I'm trying to reach you for comment on a news article I am completing for Could you reply to me on

Of course, you may delete this "clutter" comment, if you wish.