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Updated: August 9, 2011 16:10 IST

Citing challenges for Wikipedia contributors

Deepa Kurup
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A reader browses the Kannada Wikipedia in Bangalore. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K
The Hindu A reader browses the Kannada Wikipedia in Bangalore. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K

Every entry on the site has to be backed by a printed source

In a little-known forest temple near Kannur, Neeliyar Bhagavathi, a unique form of Theyyam is performed. But if you want to document this folk dance-ritual, its costume and the folklore associated with it on Wikipedia – yes, everybody's own encyclopedia – then the chances are that you can't; simply because it hasn't been put down in print.

The Wikipedia, in its current form, mandates that every entry be backed by citations that are printed. So in essence, if it doesn't exist in print, it can't exist on Wikipedia. For a hugely democratic and powerful concept like Wikipedia, this is a huge limitation, believes Achal Prabhala, a Wikimedia fellow and a member of the Foundation's advisory board.

This led Mr. Prabhala to embark on a project that explores alternative methods of citation on Wikipedia. The current policy on citation, he points out, assumes that people who come from cultures where little is documented or published do not know anything. If that is so, then how can we document aspects of everyday life, and that which is common knowledge in our culture or country, he asks. Indeed, the sum of human knowledge is far greater than the sum of printed knowledge. The problem becomes even more critical when it comes to non-English language Wikipedias. Volunteers and contributors to Indic language wikipedias have often found that the non-existaence of citeable sources a huge impediment in writing articles, or enriching them.

What Mr. Prabhala, and his team-mates Shiju Alex, Mayur and Mohau Monaledi, wanted to prove is that a feasible system can be evolved to cater to geographies that publish less, such as India, Africa and many other emerging markets where Wikipedia hopes to expand in coming years. Interestingly, this problem surfaces in two different markets.

Mr. Prabhala found that in some sense there was an equivalence between languages with large media markets – Hindi, for instance, where a vibrant media exists but there are no peer-reviewed academic journals that can be cited – and languages in Sub-Saharan Africa where the media market is indeed miniscule.

Documentary

The project, which has been documented in a film titled 'People are knowledge', dealt with three languages: Malayalam, Hindi (both Indian languages with a relatively-wide volunteer and article base) and Sepedi, one of the official languages of South Africa. The film is useful for it documents some articles, and the ground-work that goes into creating an oral citation. It documents a variety of examples, such as creating articles on traditional games that children play, a folk art and how a traditional wine is made in Africa. Given that Wikipedia is a volunteer-driven project, and investing time and resources to travel for research may not be feasible, oral citation interviews are generally conducted over the phone or via video-chat.

“The experience has been positive, and there is a lot of discussion on this project on mailing lists,” says Mr. Prabhala. Though not close to becoming policy yet, this pilot does not reflect a problem that is unique to non-English speaking markets. In English too, Wikipedia often fails to capture that which is not documented, and publishing, like everything in the world, is a reflection of power. “While the symptoms are what we've observed in India, the problem is a universal one... in every society, there's a gap between what's printed and what's known. So the fact is that there are things lost in transition from oral to print cultures. In the US, for instance, native American cultures are not documented in print adequately,” points out Mr. Prabhala.

But making oral citations a universal option across Wikipedias could pose its own challenges. Will this take a toll on quality and how will Wikipedia ensure that what goes into the world's largest encyclopedia is indeed fact, one may ask. Mr. Prabhala believes any kind of change is always both exciting and de-stabilising. Yet, there are issues that this can throw up, as this would contradict the conditions of 'verifiability' and 'no original research' that lie at the core of Wikipedia policy. “Yes, these are issues we will have to work around.

If the project is to be adopted and implemented, there's a lot of discussion that will have to happen. Rules will have to be evolved," he explains.

The Neeliyar Bhagavathi article, which is part of the pilot project in Malayalam, is a good example of how this could work. Yes, the written word is missing; but the article is nonetheless richer for it draws from a variety of sources: an onlooker of the performance, a priest and a scholar of folklore. Perhaps, this diversity in perspective can make up for the absence of the hallowed printed word.

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