This year I need to work with a rather large group of people on a lengthy and complex document to which we will each contribute at various times as our schedules permit. I have done large group-write projects before, and such things typically involve some logistical issues involving who is working on what draft when and what kind of editing notations each person uses and how often the drafts are distributed and whether the drafts are distributed to everyone or a subset of the group and so on. It can get confusing and complicated and annoying.
In fact, I am typically not the one who is annoyed but am the one being annoying because, although I try not to go too crazy with producing multiple drafts, if I've been working on the document, it's easier if the next person to work on the document works from the latest draft instead of an older version.
So, to improve the experience of writing something with a large group, I decided to dive into the wonderful world of wiki webs. With a wiki, everyone in the group can access the text whenever they want, and the text is always the latest draft.
Is that the perfect solution or what?
In fact, it hasn't been the perfect solution, but overall I'd say it has been significantly better than the alternative. The lack of perfectness stems from a few issues related to wiki creation and use:
1. The technical aspects of setting up a wiki, at least using the system preferred by my university, are BIZARRE. I have never seen so much jargon in my life, and that's saying something considering how much jargon is in the document my colleagues and I are writing. And forget using the help utility -- the one I used consisted of layers and layers of non-intuitive jargon. I finally had to ask a wiki-experienced youngster (an assistant professor) to help me get started.
2. The wiki philosophy is one of openness and freedom for anyone to edit text any time, so if you try to put some access controls on a wiki, you get a lecture about it before being allowed to set the controls. OK, I get the philosophy, but even Wikipedia locks some entries and gives different levels of editing access. What if I don't want anyone in the world to be able to view my text? I don't care so much about the editing (all versions are saved and the editing can be tracked), but let me have the freedom to be mildly paranoid about research-related documents without giving me a lecture about how I am violating the essence of wikiness.
3. There are some strange glitches related to attaching and deleting and updating files, and the relationship of text and images. I have found myself uploading frequent pdfs, in case anyone wants to see what the document 'really' looks like.
Those are just strange little wiki-glitches. The most surprising thing to me is..
4. .. how reluctant so many of my colleagues have been to add/edit text using the wiki. I set the wiki up, so it's just sitting there waiting to be edited; no one else has to deal with the bizarre technical aspects of the wiki.
These colleagues have no problem writing. In fact, they send me frequent drafts and text fragments by email, but they are shy about putting their writing directly on the wiki for everyone in the group to see. I get emails saying "Can you please look this over first and tell me if you think it is ready to go on the wiki page?" or "Can we discuss this and come up with a better version before putting it on the wiki page?".
So that's what we do. It is still much better than the non-wiki way of doing things. The latest draft is always available for anyone to see, and I have found the process of group-writing to be much more efficient with the wiki, even if not everyone is on board with the wiki way of writing.
Perhaps with time people will become less shy about going directly to the wiki without involving me first, but perhaps I am facilitating their reluctance by letting them use me as an intermediate step. I will have to think about that some more, and perhaps do some experiments on selected individuals. In the meantime, it is rather sobering to see that the last 39 drafts were edited by me because I seem to be one of the only ones who is not wikiphobic.
5 days ago