Using a Wiki to Write About Wikis
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Academic writers are used to having their ideas encapsulated and enshrined in printed text (e.g., a journal article or a book), but publishing them in a wiki strips them of this protection. What happens when strangers change our writing? Since the traditional academic publishing paradigm has not caught up with the open-editing, peer-to-peer model, are we equipped to deal with the paradigm shift that wikis represent? These are issues we consider in this short piece.
In its Summer 2006 issue, the Journal of Electronic Publishing published our article, "Communication Technology and the Evolution of Knowledge," which dealt with the evolution of information as it is affected by technology. We collaborated on that article using a wiki. Wikis are shared websites with “open-editing.” That is, the information can be edited by any and all users. When users visit wikis, they may read and change the text, re-organizing or updating the structure and content through their Web browsers. In a wiki, readers and writers jointly form a community. As researchers, we felt it was incumbent on us to explore how using a wiki affected our collaboration and our writing. What we found is not what we expected.
As academicians who had collaborated before, we were confident that writing with a wiki would prove to be no problem. And as techno-savvy citizens of the 21st century, we were comfortable with the technology. So in addition to the wiki-based article, we also set up a separate page in the wiki called “musings.” We used this area to keep track of our impressions of the process. After the article was published, we collected and reflected on our posted musings, and they are the basis of this article.
Writing with a wiki: Initial experience
As it turned out, writing initial drafts and exposing one’s unpolished thoughts to the general public was scarier than we anticipated. We had to convince ourselves to just “take the plunge,” so to speak, and get something up on the wiki, however formative that might be. This is very different from traditional academic writing, in which only the final, fully proofed version is made public. As we kept reminding ourselves, the interesting thing about writing with a wiki is that it is a process, not a product.
Furthermore, we were very aware that anything we wrote on the wiki could be modified, deleted, or stolen—a far cry from the usual rules of engagement in academic publishing. As one of us observed, wikis present an interesting quandary for the academic author: In wikis our writing loses, or has the potential to lose, permanence. Academic writing has a flavor of the sacrosanct; no matter how few may read it, the words of the authors are hers and, once published, cannot be altered or changed in any way. Academics who write in a wiki work against centuries, even millennia of tradition, and in a sense, give up control of their writing.
While the “history” function of the wiki would always let us back up to previous versions, there was still a sense of inherent vulnerability. The history function turned out to have its own disconcerting aspect. As experienced technology users, we were well aware of the need to do periodic saves as we were working, in order to not lose anything if the computer crashed, for example. However, in a wiki, each save resulted in a new entry in that page’s history list, so instead of a list of revisions based on specific changes in the text, a list of random minor modifications was produced, which documented each corrected spelling errors, replacements of one word with a better one, etc. Again, it was a little unsettling to see one’s haphazard writing habits made public. On the other hand, this provided a similar functionality to the “track changes” feature in Microsoft Word.
The other quirky thing we each discovered was that if we forgot to sign in, our writing would be recorded as being written by “Guest,” and while we recognized that others might want anonymity, we, as the primary authors, weren’t ready to give up our claim to authorship. The issue of authorship is one we explored in our wiki, coming to the conclusion that in the 21st century, technology can not only affect perceptions of who has authority to be an expert, but also has the potential to democratize authorship or, at the extreme, take away credit for authorship. In our wiki we explored the potential of unique form of cyber-publishing where peer review can occur freely. We hoped to benefit from the positive aspects of peer review on the Net, but we must acknowledge the potential for abuse as readers were free to co-opt our material. We were prepared to take that risk in sharing our writing, but still felt protective of our creation.
Collaborating with a wiki
In the past, we had collaborated on articles by taking turns working on a Word document exchange via e-mail. However, our e-mail typically did not just contain an attached file; it also had a social aspect to it, including queries about each other’s dogs, classes that semester, etc.—all the things that enrich a collaboration and make it a satisfying experience. Even if we had wanted to incorporate these off-topic threads in the wiki (which neither of us thought was appropriate for public viewing), the non-linear/non-sequential characteristic of a wiki would have made this difficult. A wiki is not like a discussion board, and although the two of us were very polite with each other (e.g., we tend to add text to the bottom of the page rather than overwrite the other’s text) there is no mechanism for a “reply,” or way to serialize postings.
Putting it all together
Since a wiki lends itself more to a hypertext structure than to the traditional linear, sequential format of text, we initially set the wiki site up with separate “pages,” based on an outline that we had agreed on ahead of time. Once we had these pages pretty much filled in, we created a new page called “Current Assembled Version” (so called since it can never truly be a “Final Version”) and copied the sections into a single sequential piece of text. Once the text was assembled on this page, we were a little less organized about keeping the corresponding section pages synched up, so they are now all available only under a heading called “Pieces.” It is unclear if it makes sense to retain these legacy pages, as they will just be confusing to anyone except those who are interested in seeing how we pieced the article together.
Interestingly, the non-formal, non-linear nature of wiki text also made us forget about the required structural components of a journal article, such as a title or an abstract. For at least one of us, getting a title and draft of an abstract down first motivates the writing of the rest of the article. Without the structure, it felt more like randomly adding bits and pieces as we went along. Even our title, once we sat down to write it, ended up going through several evolutions.
Public revision as part of the wiki process
The possibility that others would see our work as we revised it was disconcerting. Academics are trained to believe that writing is a private activity, and this belief is difficult to overcome. Though we ask our undergraduate students to share their writing with each other, to comment, give, and receive feedback, we have little experience doing so ourselves. The peer review process serves this function to some extent, but the product that is shared is polished, the result of much revision and editing. Once we had posted the core of what we wanted in our article, we invited selected friends and colleagues to contribute to it. We had set the permissions on the wiki so that the text could be edited by anyone, and new pages or the navigation menu could be edited by anyone with a login on the wiki server. Throughout our experiment the wiki was open to the public, and many “visitors” did enter the wiki and read our material. Several of these “visitors” provided feedback to us using the wiki’s “Comments” function, but no one edited our writing – which we found interesting. And although the were a few visitors who spontaneously took our “exit ramp off of the information superhighway” and provided such comments that both (some excerpts noted below), even these discerning contributors did not choose to edit the actual text.
For example, one visitor from New Zealand commented at length on his belief that we “misrepresent the nature of wiki and how they work” He felt that we were blogging rather than writing in a wiki, and as such “it is no surprise that you get few other authors contributing.” He additionally stated that “using a wiki to write a document destined for a linear publication was a futile exercise from the outset.” The response one of us posted in the Wiki expresses our viewpoint:
Yes, in some ways this experiment was an artificial use of a wiki, but we wanted to see what it felt like to write knowing that potentially the whole world might be watching. Writing implies that you make a piece of your inner self public, and we found that for us there is a big emotional difference between making final versions public and making rough drafts public.... What is of interest to me here is that rather than go in and edit our text, you chose to add discussion points to the bottom of it, so while we did not create it as a blog with a comment feature, you saw it as that.
Public revision and Wikipedia
As it turned out, we were writing the article just as the furor over the validity of information on Wikipedia broke out, so we contacted some of the people involved in this debate, as well as colleagues. Unfortunately, all of this took place during a hectic holiday period, so we never had anyone make substantial contributions or modifications to our wiki (which isn’t to say this might still not happen in the future). One reason for the lack of participation might be that we had already put a substantial amount of text on the wiki. Potential contributors (for example, our colleagues who were also used to academic writing and did not want to write anything until they felt comfortably informed) were faced with the somewhat daunting task of reading it all before they could comment on it.
An interesting development occurred in the “public” forum after we posted our article on Wikipedia. We posted it as text under "Knowledge" with the sub-heading, “The evolution of knowledge.” We also posted it as an external link under “Knowledge”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge . The original posting was on January 30, 2006. On the same day, the text was earmarked by Wikipedia to be “audited” or reviewed by their reading public. Two days later the consensus among respondents seemed to be that because our text was original research, it didn’t belong on Wikipedia. The text below is from that discussion; the discussion is in italics, and our commentary is in brackets:
Originally tagged as copyvio [copyright violation, due to our use of the Creative Commons copyright?], but frankly looks much more to me like . States and attempts to prove an original thesis, rather than summarizing an existing field of study. Delete as inappropriate for an encyclopedia. 23:09, 30 January 2006 (UTC)
Delete, Yap, looks like an essay to me. 23:16, 30 January 2006 (UTC) [we assume that the “essay” format he refers to is that of the Extended Essay required of International Baccalaureate students, which this person happened to be]
Delete: WP-NOT [“What Wikipedia is not”] a publisher of original thought. 00:33, 31 January 2006 (UTC)
Delete. per nom. 13:27, 31 January 2006 (UTC)
Delete per nom. 22:33, 31 January 2006 (UTC)
Delete per WP-NOR [“No original research”], as it concludes without reference, [The] “elitist” attitude [of Wikipedia] is being re-examined.... there will continue to be a concomitant evolution of our concepts of knowledge. 00:31, 1 February 2006 (UTC)
The result of the debate was delete. 18:55, 4 February 2006 (UTC)
Although Wikipedia’s final decision was to delete our text, this process is an essential part of the community-building and policing that make Wikipedia what it is. We’re satisfied that our perspectives remain accessible through the external link to the article (which remains at the bottom of their section on Knowledge).
Unfortunately, we have not kept up with the wiki recently. One of the authors is currently in Africa with limited Internet connectivity, which makes us aware of the important question of how to ensure that citizens of developing as well as developed nations can contribute to the global knowledge space. However, we invite you to join us in the process if you have thoughts about changing conceptions of knowledge or related topics as we enter the age of wiki. Please feel free to edit the Current Assembled Version or the wiki version of this article at http://hilarys-wikispace.wikispaces.com/. Perhaps soon we will have learned enough about the wiki process to write yet another article on it!
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Links in this Article
Discussion of suitability of article in Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/Evolution_of_knowledge