Wiki Content Management for Efficient Document Creation: Part 1

18Sep06

Instructional Design

At a certain research institute, many of the employees collaborate on documents intended for publication. Documents range from short (1,000 to 2,000 words) articles for website or newsletter publication, to longer (20 to 80 pages) reports and working papers. The authorship and editing process is sometimes shared by up to four people. The problem is that these groups of authors working on papers together often have a difficult time managing version revisions of their co-authored papers. Often, the authors are uncertain about which version is the most recent version of the paper.

Most of the learners in this setting are in their mid- to late-twenties. Most of them live and work in different parts of India, but some of them are visiting PhD students or project interns who also spend part of their time abroad at their primary university. In all, there are 47 learners, including the local researchers, the visiting PhD students, and project interns.

The learners all have at least basic computer and internet proficiency. Their primary means of communication—including the communication for the collaborative drafts—is via email. In this, they have tried to minimize the process of duplicating work by ensuring that all necessary parties are copied to; yet, especially as the papers near completion and enter the revision and editing phase, tracking changes becomes challenging. All learners are aware of and have been using the built-in “track changes” tool in their word-processing program but have conceded that this method becomes cumbersome, especially when multiple individuals are editing the same document. Furthermore, when two people have simultaneously submitted revisions, the process of tracking changes by merging the documents often adds to confusion. As a result, papers have often been suspended in the revision stage for much longer than necessary. In one recent example, one medium length document (45 pages) remained in this stage for five weeks; the length of time differs depends both on the number of authors and on the length of the document. The research institute needs to implement a more streamlined method for collaborative document creation.

To alleviate some of the difficulties between multiple versions of a document while simultaneously addressing the problem of multiple authors residing in different parts of the world, I recommend establishing a closed wiki on the institute’s website. A wiki is a collaborative document production platform for website content management. The most well-known example of a wiki implementation—with widespread distribution and authorship—is the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Wikis belong to a category of website development tools called content management systems (CMS), which were created to simplify the process of getting information online in a timely manner. As with most CMS distributions, the most powerful wiki platform available—MediaWiki—is freely available open-source software.

The advantages of using a wiki for document creation are many. First, the formatting rules are very easy to learn. For most of the basic formatting settings—bold, underline, italic, and so on—there are graphical buttons similar to those available in a word-processing program. Other settings like bulleted lists and different heading levels are very easy to learn. Second, there is extensive user control. Thus, you could invite people to view your wiki but restrict them from editing it or you can prevent editing of certain parts of a wiki once it has reached its final acceptable form. Third, the wiki platform takes advantage of the fact that text-based data occupies very little storage space on a server and saves every version of a document that has been created. Related to this, since the final document is online and accessible to everyone simultaneously, chances of duplicating work are minimized. Fourth, since many documents also include portions which are repeated across different papers (a preamble, for example, in a series of working papers or case studies on a similar topic, or a mission statement that needs to be included with each document) these portions can be linked as a separate document rather than having to manually insert them each time. This ensures that if that portion of the linked document changes later on, it only needs to be edited once to be reflected in all the documents in which it is included. Fifth, documents created in a wiki system are easy to publish to the web. In fact, they already are on the web! All that would be necessary to make them live is to change a document’s properties and assign it to public visibility. Sixth, the formatting created using a wiki system transfers to most desktop publishing systems, including standard word-processors, making the transition from screen to print very simple. Seventh, wiki systems include an intuitive method of linking and creating documents that will help the institution overall identify areas which may warrant additional research projects. Eight, as mentioned before, MediaWiki is free software. The only cost the research institute will incur is the training period; however, increased future productivity makes this cost negligible.

In a one hour session at an upcoming mandatory general meeting (these are held bimonthly), all participants will learn to use the wiki platform for all their collaborative work. They will be taught how to import their existing work from their standard word-processors as well as taught a series of “best-practices” for working with wikis in a collaborative environment. Participants will learn to separate content from design. Currently, many of them spend unnecessary time trying to make their final documents “look good” before submission while the publicity team is ultimately responsible for creating print-ready documents. During the workshop, participants will also learn to make use of other common internet communication tools—including instant messaging services—while editing a document simultaneously. Although it is rare that collaborators will be online working on the document at the same time, there are times—for example during a final edit—that this form of communication is helpful. Furthermore, most of these instant messaging services allow you to save a record of the message thread which can then be included for participants who were not able to be online at that time.

Participants will also learn how to link and cross reference documents, streamlining the process of delivering the institute’s documents online. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the process of linking and creating a wiki document is very intuitive. In the previous paragraph alone, for example, someone creating a “wiki user guide” could easily create several additional documents based just on the keywords in the paragraph. “Import their existing work,” “working with wikis in a collaborative environment,” “separate content from design,” “creating print-ready documents,” “instant messaging services,” “editing a document simultaneously,” and “save a record of the message thread,” are all examples of help-links that an author of a wiki user guide would probably want to include as documentation. Similarly, through the process of writing a conclusion, for example, authors can look for terms like “further research is necessary” to indicate the start of an “empty” wiki. These empty wikis—known as “stubs” in wiki language—can then serve as foundations for potential future projects. The beauty here is that the pages will already have been cross referenced once the information goes live on a website.

The ultimate goal of this intervention is to reduce the “suspension” stage that these documents enter near their completion from five weeks to two weeks. In other words, within two weeks of a document entering the revision process, it should be ready for either print production or web publication.

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One Response to “Wiki Content Management for Efficient Document Creation: Part 1”


  1. 1 news.mrdwab.com :: Exciting day!

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