BCopenEd, UBC Wiki

Why University Wikis Need Open Licenses

Unlike traditional scholarly publishing, a defining characteristic of the wiki model is a lack of barriers between the role of reader and that of editor; users are usually free to move back and forth between the roles at will. Due to this collaborative nature, the question of reuse of wiki content can be more complicated than it is for non-collaborative platforms. The author or creator of a work is generally considered to be the owner of that document’s copyright. However, the inherent ability for any wiki user to modify or expand upon another editor’s work makes it difficult to apply individual authorship or ownership to wiki-based content.

Content on collaborative wikis can thus be considered to be works of joint authorship of all the editors who collaboratively edited and compiled that page. The issue of joint authorship is particularly important around republishing; As Black et al state (pdf), republishing content becomes a community matter as one wiki editor cannot grant republishing or reuse permission without the express permission of the other editors (2007).

A community-based level of permission for reuse can be easily granted and expressed through the use of an open content license, such as a Creative Commons license, that allows for modification and reuse. Individual users would agree (such as through a terms of use), that any content they contribute is done so under the wiki’s open license thus allowing for basic wiki functionality of community editing and reuse. Black et al (2007) further state that for wikis where there is no explict copyright license:

It may be argued that due to the inherent nature of a wiki as a fully editable website that allows any user to read and add content to that state, a license that allows for these basic functions must be implied as a matter of necessity (p. 254).

An open content license thus should be seen as a best practice for the core functionality of university-based wikis: republishing jointly-authored works. Due to their collaborative nature and purpose, most educational and non-commercial wikis do specify an open documentation license that allows their wiki content to be republished, reused, and modified. For example, academic wikis which specify Creative Commons licenses include the Thompson Rivers University Wiki, the University of Calgary Wiki, the CUNY Academic Commons Wiki and many more.

UBC Wiki

Reflections on Organization and Community

So, it’s been about six months since I began working on the wiki organization project. With the launch of the updated interface, I thought I’d take a quick moment to reflect.

When I began working on the Wiki in July, my immediate priorities were:

  • To build a complete help section for the wiki. This step was essential for me as, at the time, I was new to MediaWiki software and creating help documentation enabled me to learn the software as I went along. I’m not that unusual – most users have not encountered MediaWiki before so having well written help pages makes the learning process quicker and lowers the barriers to entry.
  • To review the current organizational strategies and determine if anything could be improved or changed to make the wiki better. One thing I focused on was to better define and communicate the purposes of each individual namespace. As users began to understand the purpose of a namespace, they began to use them more. I still think the main space needs to be better defined.
  • To dive into the content, add categories to pages, cross-link articles, and move content to fit the organizational strategy. One of the strategies that I believe has worked well is dropping users a note anytime I touch their content. Direct communication changes the idea the wiki is just a website but rather a place that other people are using.

Ward Cunnigham created the first wiki with the belief that groups of people who want to collaborate also tend to trust one another and I think this is true on the UBC Wiki. One thing that became apparent to me is that a successfully organized wiki is not just a matter of creating proper namespaces or applying taxonomies; it is also a matter of developing community. When users understand that the Wiki is not just an individual tool, but rather a space with lots of users, they take more time to make sure their content fits into the Wiki’s organizational schema.

One of the best definitions of wikis that I’ve seen states that a wiki is a tool for distributed collaboration. Organization on a wiki, I believe, is fundamentally about collaboration. If users on the UBC Wiki are working on different projects (for example, if one person is writing a course assignment and if someone else is updating an employe manual), the way they organize their pages within the context of the greater wiki is a form of collaboration, even if they are not aware of the other person or their work.

The UBC Wiki is a tool measure in potential energy and its greatest assest is its users.  The more it gets used, the more useful it will be.

presentation, UBC Wiki

Content / Collaboration: The UBC Wiki & Library Integration

On November 18, 2010, I was invited to present an overview of the UBC Wiki as part of the UBC Library Systems and Information Technology brown bag sessions. The UBC Library is one of the largest users of the Wiki, as well as being a great partner and supporter of the entire project.

The UBC Library, in what I believe is a very innovative approach to content management for a large academic library, is using the UBC Wiki’s embed functionality as one of the foundations of their website. They are creating, collaborating, and managing content in the Wiki and then embedding that same content into their WordPress-based website. You can see Paul Joseph, the UBC Systems Librarian, discuss this approach in these videos from April of this year.

Too often at universities, information and knowledge are stuck in vertical silos delineated by departments, faculties, or offices. My goal for the presentation was to highlight how the UBC Wiki can overcome this silo effect. The Wiki is a tool that can be used for collaboration not only between people but also but also between information systems. The Wiki presents an opportunity for the Library (or anyone) to collaborate on content with the larger UBC community; for example, imagine members of the nursing faculty or nursing students being able to instantly add their favourite resources to the library’s nursing subject guide.

The Wiki also allows other members of the community to republish and redistribute library content across platforms (from e-books to websites), thus allowing for their information to reach a greater audience and have a larger impact. For example, the Library’s nursing subject guide could also live on other UBC nursing websites or an instructor could email it out as an ebook to his class. The upshot of this approach is that the library’s content would not be limited to the library silo, instead it would live as part of the larger academic community.

In addition to my presentation, Cynthia Ng also spoke to how the library is currently using the wiki.

You can download our presentation slides here: Content / Collaboration: The UBC Wiki, WordPress, & Library Integration.

If you attended the event and have any thoughts about the presentation or suggestions on how to improve it, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

presentation, UBC Wiki

Open Access & The UBC Wiki

This week is Open Access Week, an international event that promotes the benefits of Open Access to the academic and research community. As part of the week, UBC is hosting its own series of events and Novak and I were allowed to present a session on the UBC Wiki as an open platform for content sharing.

My goal for the presentation was to place the UBC Wiki alongside, if not within, the philosophy of the open access movement. If open access journals are about making formally published papers accessible the world over, then the UBC Wiki is about capturing the less formal information produced by a university and making that information accessible.

You can download our presentation slides here: An Open Platform:
Using the UBC Wiki as a Collaborative Tool and Information Repository

If you attended the event and have any thoughts about the presentation or suggestions on how to improve it, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

UBC Wiki

Philosophical Ownership & Open Collaboration

 Atriplex L. - saltbushOccasionally, I get inquiries if it is possible to create or modify a page on the UBC Wiki so it is only editable or viewable by an invited group of people. The UBC Wiki is an open platform with no easy way to restrict the editing of specific pages.  This open approach drives a philosophical view that no articles in the root of the wiki belong to any specific owner; anyone can really edit anything and they should be encourage to do so.  However, we’ve created a couple of different spaces on the wiki that imply a soft ownership of pages: while anyone can still edit these pages, the idea is that pages in these spaces do belong to someone and outside editing should kept to a minimum.  This is more of a philosophical than a structural ownership but I think this idea will be important if the wiki user base continues to grow.

If a user does create a page where they have an implied soft ownership (such as an assignment page in the Course space) and if they are concerned about someone else editing this page, then there a couple of options to help them manage it:  First, they can add the any pages to their watchlist and then update their account settings to have the UBC Wiki send them an email anytime a page on their watchlist gets edited.  This process will help call attention to any changes being made to their content.  They can then easily rollback all changes made by the last person to edit the article by simply going to the page history and clicking on the rollback link. This will remove all consecutive edits by the most recent contributor.

In an early 2004 post on using wikis, Matt Barton addressed this issue:

How do wikis protect an author’s work? Answer: They don’t. A good preface on every wiki page would be, “Abandon all authority all ye who enter here…wikis are protected not by code, or by law, but rather by the participation of an active wiki community. If you are proud of your entry, you will feel compelled to see what’s up if you receive a notification that the entry has been changed, and “roll it back” if it’s obvious the page was vandalized or rendered less intelligent.”

Wikis are fundamentally about open collaboration. The advantage in this sort of platform is that knowledge sharing is truly community based – anyone can make the wiki a better place.

While the UBC Wiki’s namespaces imply a soft ownership of content, it is certainly possible that it might not be the right tool for all projects. In this case, I would encourage users to look at the other tools offered at UBC Blogs: a group can be a great place for private online dialogue and a multi-user blog allows collaboration while limiting access to only those who need it. However, for community collaboration and open knowledge sharing, I think the wiki is unsurpassed as a tool as it inherently maximizes these benefits while minimizing the risks.

Image: Public domain image from USDA Plants Database