Web 2.0 Science: Rise of the Wiki, Part I

13Sep07

While blogs are great for journalism and outreach, I do not think their present form will significantly change the way we do science. The future, my friends, is in wikis.

http://www.xkcd.com/285/
Fig 1. “Wikipedian Protester” by R. Munroe. Adapted with permission from xkcd comics.  

In this n-part sub-series of my “Web 2.0 Science” posts, I will discuss some prospects for wikis in science. This first post is a brief introduction to the principles of wikis, I will draw upon these in my coming posts.

Update 13 Sept 07: I appear to have been partially-scooped by a fields medalist. Professor Gowers has initiated a nice discussion on the value of a wiki-based math-0-pedia. (I have a bit of a different path I’ll follow in the next posts.)

Readers who are already familiar with wikis can ignore this post completely.🙂

What, me Wiki?

Wikis are `malleable’ websites where users can change and update content in real-time. Instead of just accessing information, users collaboratively contribute to create and refine information. You are probably already familiar with the most famous wiki, Wikipedia, the online user-generated encyclopedia.

There are four major principles of wikis that make them powerful.

  1. Collaborative generation of content.
  2. Separation of content and presentation.
  3. Quick and easy remote editing of content.
  4. Historical preservation of content.

The first point is the `take home message’ of the wiki philosophy. In words that physicists would appreciate (or groan at), the generation of content on a wiki is an emergent phenomenon. Content is generated by many people simultaneously; as people read content, they correct errors and continously contribute new ideas.

The second point is the separation of content and presentation. Wikis are the offspring of XML. Just as a journalist doesn’t have to worry about newspaper (or news website) layout, wikis allow content generators to focus only on meaningful content while others can `make the wiki pretty.’

This makes the third point possible: because content generators don’t have to fiddle with web design, editing articles is no more difficult than editing a text document. Because a wiki is a website, not a file on your computer, you can edit a wiki from anywhere with a net connection. You don’t have to have your specific laptop or be at a university network terminal.

Finally, nothing is lost on a wiki. Wikis record changes to content rather than overwriting previous content. Thus one doesn’t need to worry about a lunatic crackpot destroying your physics wiki — it’s easy to undo nefarious changes and lock out that IP address. Because this is a community effort, everyone [theoretically] contributes to maintaining content standards. The other aspect of this is that a sense of history is preserved. Historians lament the electronic age as a time when we won’t have the benefit of hard copies of hand-written letters to understand how previous generations thought. This is not the case with a wiki: all of our past insights and foibles are recorded and saved.

Coming next time: In my next post I’ll discuss how these principles can be applied to use wikis as tools to do science. Following this, I’ll provide examples of different kinds of wikis that can make your scientific life a bit easier.




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