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Wikis are used to create new, digital spaces for collaboration
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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 1 December 2014


See also Archives 2.0 | Top Fifty (50) Medical Wikis You Might (Want to) Know | Using wikis in reference services

"A community is like a ship: everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm." — Henrik Ibsen

Wikis are widely used for collaborative writing and crowdsourcing, two core activities of web 2.0. There are probably close to one hundred (100) medical wikis currently active (see Top Fifty (50) Medical Wikis You Might (Want to) Know) but there has been a decline in the use of specific sites with an uptick in the use of the medical portal within Wikipedia. In academic circles, wikis are used less often but in various ways to enable researchers and collaborators to create new knowledge and develop, edit or add to that knowledge. The open aspect of wikis makes them controversial and sometimes problematic. While useful in many ways, wikis are not universally applicable for writing and knowledge creation especially when the standards of accuracy must reach 100% for human safety (such as in medicine). That aside, Wikipedia has moved past its initial bad press, and is now accepted for encyclopedia creation. Wikis have generally caught on for the purposes of information sharing and social networking.

All kinds of information organizations use wikis to create new knowledge, manage websites and post content for employees. Health librarians use wikis to share information and learning materials and to support their work in evidence-based health care. Some critics say that wikis are not yet as reliable as print texts and thus may be implicated in causing medical errors. However, in 2005, Nature published an article urging researchers to "read Wikipedia cautiously and amend it enthusiastically". A study in that issue found that Wikipedia articles contain only slightly more errors than Britannica Encyclopedia. A consensus since 2005 has emerged about Wikipedia: that it has improved considerably on its early reliability and accuracy, and can be used with some confidence with other authoritative sources of information.


The wiki concept goes back to the late 1980s. By the 1990s, wikis were being recognized as a means to develop private and public knowledge-bases, inspiring Nupedia founders to use wiki technology as a basis for public encyclopedia development. The word wiki means quick in Hawaiian. WikiWikiWeb, the brainchild of Ward Cunningham who created the Portland Pattern Repository, was the first to use the mnemonic - what I know is (also known as a backronym). By 2001, wikis were increasingly used as collaborative software for project communication, intranets and documentation for technical users. In December 2002, Socialtext launched the first commercial open source wiki solution. Open source wiki software was widely available, downloaded and installed throughout these years. Today some companies use wikis as their only collaborative software and as a replacement for static intranets. There is a greater use of wikis behind firewalls than on the public internet.

Content creation

A wiki is an editable website that records changes so that pages can be changed back if needed. The underlying system includes tools to monitor changes and pages to discuss and resolve disagreements over content. Wiki content can be misleading when users add incorrect information, intentionally or accidentally. Many wikis allow unrestricted access or require registration. Some private wikis, in addition, require an authentication process. Implementing a wiki is a challenge, particularly in convincing people to use it. Training is required to make people comfortable when using the technology, otherwise they won't bother; collaborators or teams should be given incentives of some kind to contribute. In some cases, collaboration may be at odds with the organizational culture of the collaborators, and wiki implementation may be viewed as disruptive. Making a change as a corporate culture from being competitive to being cooperative is a large undertaking; it requires a change in perspective at all levels of the organization as well as administrative levels.


The wiki source format is augmented with a simplified markup language. Style and syntax can vary a great deal among implementations, some of which also allow HTML tags. Making HTML code visible makes the actual text content very hard to read and edit. It is therefore better to promote plain-text editing with a few simple conventions for structure and style. Wikis are a true hypertext medium, with non-linear navigational structures. Each page contains a large number of links to other pages. Most wikis offer at least a title search, and sometimes a full-text search. The scalability of the search depends on whether the wiki engine uses a database; indexed database access is necessary for high speed searches on large wikis. On Wikipedia, which is the best known wiki-based encyclopedia, the "Go button" allows readers to view pages that matche the entered search criteria as closely as possible. The MetaWiki search engine was created to enable searches across multiple wikis, but the search is keyword only. The most common wiki systems are server-based. The edit, display and control functions are provided on a server through a wikiengine that renders content into HTML-based pages for display.

Content issues

Wikis are designed to make easy corrections. While wikis are open, they provide a means to verify recent additions to pages. On every wiki, there is a "Recent Changes" page, which is a specific list of recent edits or a list of edits made over a given time. Some wikis filter the list to remove minor edits and edits made by automatic importing scripts. From the change log, other functions are accessible such as Revision History showing the previous versions; the diff feature, highlighting the changes between two revisions. Using the revision history, editors can view and restore previous versions. A regular wiki user can view "Recent Changes" and consult the history, restoring a previous revision. This process is more or less easy to do, depending on the wiki software used. The open philosophy of most wikis does not ensure that contributors have good intentions. Vandalism is a problem, and the idea of undoing damage rather than preventing it is seen as soft security.

Content management

Wikis share several features with content management systems (CMS) which are used by various learning organizations and communities-of-practice. In comparing wikis and CMSs, the following basic features should be considered:

  • The name of an article is embedded in the hyperlink;
  • Articles can be created or edited at anytime by anyone (with certain limitations for protected articles);
  • Articles are editable within any web browser;
  • Each article provides one-click access to the history/versions page;
  • Each article provides one-click access to a discussion page particular to that article;
  • The most recent additions/modifications of articles can be monitored actively or passively.

The concept of a wiki refers to a core set of features and fits a generative nature (as Jonathan Zittrain has labeled it). Whether wikis encourage more writing or leads to raising the awareness of community members remains to be seen.

Examples of wikis in use

Wiki tools

Server-side wikis

Wiki articles in Educause


Personal tools