The benefits of having a lab wiki

A few months ago Mike Kaspari over at Getting Things Done in Academia emailed me to ask “how do you use your Lab Wiki? Has it been worth it?”. I sent back much of what is included below and Mike asked if he could use some of my thoughts for a post on wikis. I of course said yes, but since GTDA has been silent for quite a while now I figured I’d go ahead and post on it myself.

First, for those of you whose only exposure to wikis is wikipedia, a wiki is basically just a group of web pages that can be edited online (i.e., inside a browser). These pages might be editable by anyone (like wikipedia) or only by users with permission. They also might be viewable by anyone, or only by a small set of people. For a lab wiki I’d recommend that most of the wiki only be accessible and editable by members of the lab with some areas accessible by specific external collaborators.

So, why have a lab wiki?

1. Collaboration – The wiki provides a central place for idea development, conversation, posting of results and interpretation, etc. It is particularly valuable for remote collaboration in that it switches the paradigm from one or a few people taking the lead and dealing with keeping everyone else informed to a system where it is the participants responsibility to keep an eye on what is going on and everyone decides their own level of involvement.

2. Idea generation, motivation and storage – Have you ever had a cool idea but didn’t have time to think about it at the moment. I jot down 2 sentences on the research ideas page of my wiki. The idea of this page is to put interesting ideas out in front of larger audiences and see if anyone is interesting in working on them. This has already lead progress being made on one project that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. At the very least the idea is there for later if I want to go back to it myself.

3. Progress in small steps – If I have an idea about something, even a small one, I just login and jot it down on that projects page. If I have 20 minutes of spare time I can do one simple analysis, or learn how to do a single step in an statistical or computational problem and post the answer. A small step might allow one of my collaborators to make their next step on a project, or seeing progress may motivate them to do something themselves. In general I find that this medium encourages and allows progress to be accomplished with more smaller steps, thus lowering the activation energy for some projects.

4. Information aggregation – When someone in the lab finds a useful tool, good advice on some academic task (e.g., writing papers), etc. this information can be stored on the wiki. This sort of thing can be done via email or via blog, but I think that permanent archiving in well structured pages combined with the inherently improved potential for participation by members of the lab makes the wiki superior for this task. For example, a third year student who is starting to write papers in 2012 can just go to the wiki page on advice for writing and get going. If I’d just emailed the relevent link to my current students then it won’t reach future students and it won’t even reach many current students at a time when it’s useful to them.

5. Lab openness – Most of the pages on our wiki are open to anyone in the lab (though we do have the ability to restrict access and do for outside guests and in a few other circumstances). My hope is that this will help with a variety of minor issues I’ve observed over the years (not in my labs, but in labs I’ve been a member of and/or known people in) including territorial disputes resulting from a lack of communication and the classic graduate student mistake of thinking that because it took your advisor three weeks to read your paper that it’s because they’re at home playing Xbox all evening. I don’t know if this will work but my feeling is that openness is in general a good solution to a lot of problems and the wiki makes such openness happen almost by default and provides a historical record for cases where disputes still occur.

So, that’s my plug for having a lab wiki. There are a variety of ways to setup a wiki, with the easiest being to use one of several online hosts. We use PBwiki, which I can’t say enough great things about, but there are a variety of options. Many of these wiki sites have full WYSIWYG editors so editing a page is just as easy as editing a Word document. So, go find a wiki provider, set up a free wiki, and try it out. Maybe you’ll find it as essential a tool for a modern academic lab as we do.

3 Comments on “The benefits of having a lab wiki

  1. Hey, Ethan, nice to see your slithey toves on the web. Great bunch of posts thus far.

    Thanks for the GTDA plug, which may arise from its torpor when we get back from Peru.

    Regardless, blogs, like species, have an lifespan, and even if GTDA has reached late middle age in blog years, it’s good to see some fresh insights.

  2. Mike – glad you like the place. I’m still struggling with the relatively quick and unpolished side of blogging relative to writing papers, but I think I’m warming to it.

  3. Pingback: Another opportunity to change the way we collaborate – G o o g l e W a v e I n v i t e s for ecologists « Jabberwocky Ecology

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