Whither the Wikis?

July 14, 2010

Of all the Web 2.0 tools that have become de rigueur on college campuses, wikis fundamentally embody the Internet’s original promise of pooling the world’s knowledge — a promise that resonates loudly in academe.

And yet higher education’s relationship with wikis — Web sites that allow users to collectively create and edit content — has been somewhat hot-and-cold. Wikipedia, the do-it-yourself online encyclopedia, vexed academics early on because of its wild-west content policies and the perception that students were using it as a shortcut to avoid the tedium of combing through more reliable sources. This frustration has been compounded by the fact that attempts to create scholarly equivalents have not been nearly as successful.

However, academe’s disdain for the anarchical site has since softened; a number of professors have preached tolerance, even appreciation, of Wikipedia as a useful starting point for research. As the relationship between higher education and wikis matures, it is becoming clearer where wikis are jibing with the culture of academe, and where they are not.

In most cases, using wikis to pool human knowledge of various topics into single, authoritative accounts falls into the “not” category. Academic culture abhors mass authorship. This is not only because many disciplines are given to disagreement and conflicting interpretations, but because scholars tend to chafe at the notion of not getting credit for their work, or having it fussed with by others.

“Literature reviews and summaries of articles are never going to be entirely objective; it would be difficult to write useful ones, for example, that conformed to Wikipedia's NPOV [neutral-point-of-view] requirements,” says Jason B. Jones, an associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University.

Anyway, Jones says, the professoriate is too entrenched in traditional publishing to summon much interest in helping curate academic wikis.

“To the extent scholarship in academe is caught up in questions of status, promotion, and tenure,” he says, “then it is slightly misaligned with wiki-style approaches.”

“We’ll probably need one of two things to happen before wikis can take hold in scholarship the same way that they have in teaching and administration,” Jones says. “Either senior, post-promotion faculty will need to lead some successful wiki-based projects, or there will need to be an overhaul in the way we think about publication.”

“For a wiki-based project to succeed within academic culture, I believe it would need to find a way to highlight individual voices in conversation with one another and to reward those individuals for their work, and that just hasn't happened yet,” says Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona College and a vocal advocate of open peer-review — another concept that has struggled to get traction.

Fitzpatrick points to blogs as a new-media invention that satisfies the scholarly desire for attribution. “They’ve provided rewards (in the form of increased visibility for the authors and their ideas) that make the time commitment worth it for a number of scholars,” she says. “I don't at the moment see how a wiki could do the same, and without that, I just can’t imagine such a project really taking off.”

So far, no broadly imagined academic wiki projects have really hit the big time. Citizendium, conceived -- by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger -- as a more rigorously fact-checked alternative to Wikipedia , has only managed to push 140 articles through the vetting process since it was created in 2006 (there is a logjam of 14,000 articles in various phases of review). Scholarpedia, meanwhile, only lets selected experts play in its virtual sandboxes, making it more like a traditional journal or encyclopedia than a true wiki.

Other wikis have failed to get significant traction as well. Wikademic, conceived as “a place where academic papers can be summarized, discussed, clarified, [or] made fuller by the general community,” only managed to post a handful of papers before its creator, Yossi Farjoun, a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, moved on to other projects.

AcaWiki, a Hewlett Foundation-funded project that aims to “increase the impact of scholars, students, and bloggers by enabling them to share summaries and discuss academic papers online,” thus “turning research hidden in academic journals into something more dynamic and accessible,” has seen only modest traffic since its launch in October. Of its 180 users, only five were active within the last week.

“People have just assumed that if you set up a wiki, people will want to contribute,” says Gerald C. Kane, an assistant professor of information systems at Boston College’s school of management, who has made several “disappointing” attempts to promote the use of wikis in the academic journal review process. “I think that wikis are much harder to manage than that, and if it to have success, they will have to be sponsored by content creators and carefully managed.”

Research wikis might be limiting their success by declining to focus on a particular discipline, says Fitzpatrick. Discipline-specific wikis might have an easier time building a community of devoted users — which is the key to any site that depends on continuous participation from visitors, she says.

“Discipline-specific wikis are moving quickly,” concedes Jodi Schneider, a spokeswoman for AcaWiki, pointing to such examples as nLab, for math and physics, and OpenWetWare, for biology.

A wiki might also garner more use if it focuses on a relatively young discipline. So says a team of Japanese researchers in a paper presented last week at the annual WikiSym symposium, in Poland. While scholars in more settled fields might chafe at a bottom-up model proposed by wikis, a new field such as social informatics might benefit from a space where everything that is known can be collected and discussed, the authors say.

The greatest contributions wikis have made to academic research can be found not in actual wikis but in collaborative tools built on a similar model, says Jones, the Central Connecticut professor. “While it's true that there aren’t a ton of formally wiki-based scholarship projects out there, there are lots of resources that are, if you like, wiki-inspired,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Whether it’s the idea of user-generated content, or inviting many eyes onto a project (e.g., CommentPress), or, tools that facilitate collaboration, such as Google Docs or Zoho Office, wiki-like ideas are increasingly important to the scholarly community.”

As far as actual wikis, the areas where they have gotten the most play in higher education seems to be in classrooms and various administrative apparatuses. Earlier this year, Ohio State University used wikis to facilitate discussion among its hundreds of faculty members when it had to restructure several majors in light of budget cuts. Democratic governance bodies, it seems, are more open to attributing work to an anonymous collectivity.

“Acknowledging our common vulnerability, we may be willing to trade some measure of control to gain the benefits of broad group participation in finding solutions,” wrote Lev Gonick, CIO at Case Western University and a prominent voice in higher ed technology, last year. “We may find that the wiki way shows the most effective kind of leading from behind.”

As students may be more willing to acknowledge their “common vulnerability” than published scholars (and their obligation to participate in projects that contribute to their grades), wikis have become popular vehicles for class exercises. Citizendium — the rigorously fact-checked but stagnant Wikipedia spin-off — has even attempted to leverage this as a way to generate more copy flow by encouraging professors to have their students collaborate on Citizendium pages for credit. Schneider, the AcaWiki spokeswoman, says she thinks graduate students who have to summarize research papers anyway could be a prime source of content for AcaWiki.

"Not sure I see a big disappointment," says Brian Lamb, manager of the Office of Learning Technology at the University of British Columbia, who in 2004 penned a treatise on the emergence of wikis in higher education. Lamb points to a wide array of promising, "outward-facing" wiki projects, including efforts to collectively predict technology trends, formulate best-practices tutorials on how to build blogs and open educational resources — and yes, even write papers. "Things have not necessarily played out exactly as I thought they might five or six years ago, but I think that's a reflection of where people happen to be in terms of their online preferences," Lamb says. "I'm OK with that."

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