Reflections on wikis and Physiopedia

A couple of recent articles that highlight weaknesses in the collaborative authoring model utilised by wiki based sites such as Wikipedia have led to some thoughts about our own wiki based project Physiopedia.

One article in MIT Technology Review is titled The Decline of Wikipedia. The main problem they highlight is the decreasing numbers of people involved in contributing to and maintaining the wiki content and the limited diversity of the editors that are involved.

“The volunteer workforce… …has shrunk by more than a third since 2007 and is still shrinking”

They point to several reasons for this decline:

  • The volunteers are predominately male and this community “operates a crushing bureaucracy with an often abrasive atmosphere that deters newcomers”.
  • Software devised to combat vandalism by automatically reversing incorrectly formatted edits and issuing email warnings, actively discourages new contributors who are likely to make mistakes in their initial edits.
  • The editing interface displays wiki markup language rather than using a more friendly WYSIWYG editor such as used by nearly all other authoring software.

The article authors also point to a long term issue faced by Wikipedia which is that the democratic nature of wikis discourage experts from contributing, given that their work, like anyone else’s, can be overwritten within minutes.

Wikipedia is adopting several strategies to resolve this problem:

  • The addition of a Thank button (akin to the Facebook like button) which gives fellow editors the opportunity to provide positive feedback for good contributions to articles.
  • New editors are now encouraged to initially carry out basic edits on suggested articles to gain experience and learn how to use the editing tools before embarking on more involved contributions.
  • A visual editor that makes editing article content less daunting (currently only available in Beta).

The second article that raised issues with collaborative authoring and specifically how these activities relate to learning is the Crowd Learning section of the 2013 Innovating Pedagogy report. The interesting contributions are in comments on this article where Liz FitzGerald notes several responses to problems of accuracy and coherence in collaboratively authored content:

  • Use of peer moderation
  • Use of reputation systems
  • The make up of the editing community (particularly where members are not anonymous and from a professional background)

Two sites are suggested as examples where these approaches are used:

  1. h2g2 – a collaboratively authored guide where entries have to be approved before going live and article contributors are publicly acknowledged in the article sidebar.
  2. iSpot – a nature spotting site which uses a reputation system (reputations on iSpot) to publicly acknowledge the best contributors to the site.

Implications for Physiopedia

There are a variety of reasons why many of the issues identified in these articles do not apply to Physiopedia:

  • Authoring accounts require users to be registered or student physiotherapists, so the community is purposefully not diverse and is professional.
  • No edits can be made anonymously so vandalism is unlikely to be a problem (we have yet to see any instances of vandalism in the 5 years of running the site).
  • Our authoring community and the size of the site are relatively small and so the bureaucracy involved in editing and managing the site also remains small and there are no automated systems for rejecting edits.
  • The editing interface provided to users by default is a simple WYSIWYG editor with the option to view and edit wikitext for those with appropriate skills.
  • The Physiopedia volunteers induction programme encourages new editors to start with simple tasks to build experience using the system before starting more ambitious editing tasks.
  • Volunteer reputations are acknowledged with badges/belts which are displayed on their Physiopedia profile page.
  • Article contributors are publicly acknowledged in the author’s box on each page, with original editors and the most significant contributors being displayed most prominently.

However these two articles do raise several issues which I feel we will still need to consider:

  • Physiopedia’s editing community mainly come from the musclo-skeletal specialism of physiotherapy and other areas of the profession are poorly represented in articles. We need to actively reach out to these other domains and encourage contributions.
  • As noted in a recent post on our participation on a global health MOOC, we may need to consider involving other health professions in editing content in order to provide a multidisciplinary perspective in articles where this is appropriate.
  • The Wikipedia Thank button is interesting as a simple positive feedback mechanism. This could be displayed on the published article and all article contributors could receive credits when these are clicked. An alternative positive feedback mechanism could draw on to the number of social media shares each Physiopedia article receives, with the related authors being notified and/or receiving credits when certain levels are reached.
  • The reputation of article authors could be acknowledged more prominently by displaying appropriate icons next to the author names in the article authors box.
  • As experienced by Wikipedia, Physiopedia also struggles to involve recognised experts in the creation of articles related to their areas of expertise. This is an issue identified in the MIT article as being inherent due to the democratic nature of wikis. Options such as protecting articles written by experts from subsequent edits and/or the clear identification of a topic expert (as opposed to article author) within the article author’s box may help recruit such contributors.

The Decline of Wikipedia article doesn’t suggest that Wikipedia is likely to disappear or become irrelevant any time soon. Wikipedia is still the 6th most visited website and its content is increasingly being used by “intelligent” apps such as Apple’s Siri to answer user queries.

So we feel that through adapting to the changing nature of their user community and being open to innovative new features, wiki participation can be encouraged and resources built of even greater value.