This document is a work in progress to describe the advantages of using a wiki as an information repository and collaborative space for institute research labs. The goal of the document should be to provide both pros and cons to better enable new labs to decide whether they would like to participate.
What good are wikis in general?
Wikis make it easy for anyone in a group to contribute without an administrative bottleneck. There is no "webmaster" who approves every contribution to the site.
Ease of contribution
All you need is a web browser (and a login/password in the case of OpenWetWare) to contribute to a wiki.
Hard to break
Wikis are nearly impossible to break - changes are tracked and can be very easily reverted.
Why are wikis useful for research labs?
Much "lore" and information is lost when lab members leave (a key problem given high turnover rate of academic labs), the wiki provides a low-barrier of entry method for lab members to contribute that information to a database which will persist after they leave the lab.
The ease of wiki linking enables much more rich documents and information than is availble in static documents. For instance can link out to informative pages about particular words in the wiki, enabling someone reading the protocol who doesn't understand a concept to quickly locate a reliable, accurate definition. Moreover, since everyone can revise the information content of a wiki, mistakes are more quickly caught and corrected.
By providing a common space for people to post information about their work, graduate students are more likely to be aware of the work going on in other labs locally. It seems like this will improve the likelihood of collaboration.
Shared Materials Information
Chemicals, antibiotics, etc can have their own wiki pages listing general information, safety, etc. Since these are things which are general information rather than lab-specific stuff (like protocols) they could be shared across labs. For instance, Ampicillin. If a protocol called for the use of ampicillin, it could include a link to this, so if you forget the mode of action of ampicillin you just click rather than have to go dig it up in Molecular Cloning.
A list of equipment is a useful shared resource to make labs aware of the available equipment in the building. Also, equipment pages serve as a central repository for control experiments and other information about the device, see Victor3 Plate Reader.
Why not just start your own wiki?
Assuming that you agree that wiki's are a good way of sharing information between lab members, the next natural question is why join OpenWetWare. Why not just start your own lab wiki? And why make your lab's store of knowledge, tips and tricks available to the world when you could restrict access to just the lab?
The fundamental goal of all universities is education. Therefore, one could argue that academic research labs have an educational obligation to share their information. OpenWetWare is therefore world readable. See here for more information.
Eliminate redundant, wasted effort
There are often instances when someone does an experiment and it fails because of some critical little step that it took the previous person a long time to figure out. Rather than making the second person go through the same trials and tribulations, why not minimize wasted effort as much as possible? In other words, rise above the vengeful desire to make others also suffer the same grind of troubleshooting the experiment in the hope that you too will benefit from information provided by others. :)
Share and share alike
The general tendency is for labs, particularly in the biological sciences, to not share information in a generally available way. (Most labs are very helpful on an individual, case by case basis however.) But if everyone shares their expertise then ultimately everyone benefits from the "open commons" of information. There is also often a general concern that by making ideas/expertise publicly available, such as on a website, you risk someone else either a) scooping your work or b) somehow losing your edge against other labs. Usually, however, if you are open and sharing of information, then others will respond in kind with the long-term benefits outweighing short-term disadvantages. The proof of principle of this mode of action is, of course, the open source software community.
How do I join?
Email endipedia-admin AT mit DOT edu. Feel free to email regardless of whether you are an individual, a student group, a lab or <insert your group here>. And your research or interests do not necessarily have to be biologically relevant either.
The current usage of OpenWetWare provides some compelling examples of why joining the site may be useful to your lab.
Wikipedia is a great example of a useful information resource being created via a wiki.
See the Interwiki map for other wiki's.