Centre for Internet & Society
People are Knowledge – Experimenting with Oral Citations on Wikipedia

People are Knowledge

The Centre for Internet and Society in association with the Wikimedia Foundation has produced a documentary film "People are Knowledge". The film evolved out of a project on Oral Citations in India and South Africa funded by the Wikimedia Foundation, and undertaken by Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board Member Achal Prabhala as a short-term fellowship, to help overcome a lack of published materials in emerging languages on Wikipedia. New Delhi-based filmmaker Priya Sen has directed the film, with additional assistance from Zen Marie who handled the shooting in South Africa. The film explores how alternate methods of citation could be employed on Wikipedia, documenting a series of specific situations with regards to published knowledge, and subsequently, with oral citations.

The Problem

Imagine a world with every individual having open access to the sum of human knowledge. But there is a problem — the sum of human knowledge is far greater than the sum of printed knowledge. For example, in India and South Africa, the number of books produced every year is nowhere near to the number of books being producing in UK. There is very little citable, printed material to rely on in the indigenous languages of India or South Africa. So it is difficult for the languages of these countries to grow its own Wikipedia. While there are significant media markets for Indian languages within and outside India, there is very little scholarly publishing in any language other than English. On the other hand, South African languages with the exception of English and Afrikaans have had a largely oral existence and only in recent times have started a publishing tradition, which is in nascent stages.

Total Production of Books in UK, South Africa and India as of 2005

UK: 161,000 books / 60 million people
South Africa: 6100 books/48 million people
India: 97,000 books/1100 million people

If we were to measure books produced in 2005 per person per country, the comparison is even more glaring:

UK: 1 book per 372 people
South Africa: 1 book per 7869 people
India: 1 book per 11,371 people

Source: Wikimedia page on Research: Oral Citations. For more details see here

As a result of such disparity, everyday, common knowledge — things known, observed and performed by millions of people — do not enter Wikipedia as facts because they haven’t been written down in a reliably published source. Hence, Wikipedia in countries like India and South Africa lose out on opportunities for growth.

While we are enthused about the rise of “small language Wikipedias”, it may not happen soon. Not with the present rules at least. Even if we were to convince every single person in the South with Internet access to become an active editor on Wikipedia, there is still a problem that they are going to run up against. That problem that currently bedevils everyone working in local languages in Asia and Africa, and nobody seems to have a control over it.

For Wikipedias in languages of the South, citations aren’t a problem when the articles being added are translations (for universally important topics, reliable citations are already there in English and other European languages). Assuming, however, that we all want the sphere of knowledge to be universally expanded — and not merely translated from languages of the North to languages of the South — there are two specific problems with finding citations for important local subject matters.

  • Published, citable resources may simply not exist. This is not just true of Sub-Saharan African languages (many of which use Latin script, have a relatively recent written history, and small or non-existent publishing markets) but also of several South Asian languages (even though they have non-Latin scripts, a relatively ancient written history and thriving publishing markets in news and entertainment).
  • Even when published scholarly resources exist, they may be inaccessible and thus effectively rendered invisible to Wikipedians. Libraries and archives in India and South Africa are usually not electronically indexed. Furthermore, they are not always conveniently located, and often impose a massive bureaucratic burden on the user to search, see, borrow from or even enter.

Oral Citations as a Possible Solution

Hindi Wikipedia has over 65,000 articles, Malayalam Wikipedia has about 15,000, and Northern Sotho Wikipedia has about 600. Many of these articles — especially when concerning subjects that are specific to a particular people or place — have no citations whatsoever. Yet, an editor — often several editors — created the articles in question. How? Simply put, and barring laziness and carelessness where citations are available, the basis of fact therein is orally circulated knowledge. Even today, in several parts of the world, people are knowledge. Therefore, an exercise where oral citations are collected and assembled — in a manner not different to that by which print sources are cited on Wikipedia, i.e., with diverse viewpoints, several sources, a rationale for authenticity — might be one way to capture this knowledge in a form that is recognisable to Wikipedia.

Anthropologists have been doing this for years — in the academy, it is called field work. The average Wikipedians certainly don’t have the capacity to replicate the arduous research programme of a doctoral student but they do have common sense and access to basic telecommunication facilities. So oral citations can:

  1. Create externally verifiable authentication for a Wikipedia article that is based on experiential facts, but lacks citations simply because no printed source has recorded these facts to date.
  2. Add to the set of published scholarly resources that document an existing fact, for example, in cases where the published sources are archaic or primarily foreign, and thus complete existing knowledge or correct its biases.

The Experiment

Achal Prabhala worked with Wikipedians across three languages in two different countries — Malayalam (40 million speakers) and Hindi (250 million speakers) in India and Northern Sotho (5 million speakers) in South Africa to see how oral citations might be received in the language communities they can benefit, discuss this idea with Wikipedians at large, not as a final solution but as a first step in understanding how we may expand our definition of reliable sources of knowledge beyond what is published in print, and what benefits such an expansion may bring and show this is an idea that takes hold, to create a set of clearly laid-out initial templates that others can use and build upon. Four collaborators: Shiju Alex, Mayur, Mohau Monaledi and Achal Prabhala, with additional help from Vijayakumar Blathur were finalised. Parts of the experiment were then filmed as an edited documentary.

The Pitfalls

There are numerous potential pitfalls[1] the most glaring of which is the principle of ‘No original research’. Naturally, we’re going to have to find a way to justify our approach, or work around it, or expand its meaning. Several people will welcome it, several people will object on all kinds of grounds, and several others possibly misusing and misinterpreting oral citations (i.e., without care to authenticity, diversity of opinion) in their work on Wikipedia.

However, this is the right thing to do. The problem is real. The solution being presented is a first step, not a final answer. Sure, people might have a problem with it, and sure, there may be heated objections to it; but overall, if it’s the right thing to do, it should be done, however strange it seems and however unsettling it is.

After all, if the status quo had to be respected absolutely, we wouldn’t have Wikipedia.


[1]On a side note, Achal says that the pitfall to the pitfall is the status quo: literally thousands of articles without any citations whatsoever, a problem that no one notices because they’re in languages that the majority of current editors on Wikipedia do not understand – and a problem which is often overlooked by language communities in the south in favour of growth.

For recorded interviews, click here

Watch the movie below:

People are Knowledge (subtitled) from Achal R. Prabhala on Vimeo.

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