Saturday, February 4, 2017

Research techniques - Wikipedian ways

Over the years, I have been using Wikipedia, as a kind of public research note book. I sometimes fail to keep careful notes and I regret it. For instance, some years ago I was reading through some scanned materials on an archive and came across a record of the Great Indian Hornbill in the Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu. It was carefully noted by some British medical officer who was visiting the place and he commented on the presence of the species in the region as part of a report that he submitted on the sanitary and medical conditions of the district. Google searches did not see or index the document and I thought I would find the content when I wanted it but I have never managed since to find it again. Imagine how useful it would have been to me and others if I had put in a reference to it in the Wikipedia article on the hornbill species with a comment on its past distribution.

Not long ago, someone on the email list Taxacom-L sought information on Samuel B. Fairbank - a collector of specimens in India. I knew the name as he was one of the collaborators of Allan Octavian Hume (who even named a species after him) and decided that I knew enough to respond to the request for information. I looked around on the Internet and found that there was enough material scattered around to put together a decent biography (I even found a portrait photo whose copyright had thankfully expired) and it led to a Wikipedia entry that should spare anyone else looking for it the effort that I put in. Of course one follows the normal Wikipedia/reseach requirements of adding citations to the original sources so that anyone interested in more information or in verifying the sources can double check it.

These additions to Wikipedia may strike you as something that is not very different from what an ant does when it (actually usually she) goes out foraging - when she finds food, she eats a bit and then returns to the nest leaving behind a trail marker on the ground that says "this way for food". Other ants that are walking by spot the message written on the ground and if interested go on and help harvest the food resource. The ants that find the food again add a trail marker - now the strength of the trail marker chemical indicates veracity and possibly the amount of food available. This kind of one-to-many communication between individuals mediated via environmental cues has a term - stigmergy. Now the ant colony has been termed as a "super organism", a kind of distributed animal, with eyes, legs and even a brain that is distributed across little seemingly independent entities. Now there is a lot of research on how super-organisms work - it is an area of considerable interest in computer science because - the system is extremely resilient to damage - a colony goes on as if nothing has happened if you went and crushed a whole bunch of ants underfoot. How far this metaphor helps in understanding the organic growth of Wikipedia is uncertain but it certainly seems to be a useful way of conveying the idea of how contributors work. From a biomimicry perspective it could even inspire ways of designing the interface and system of Wikipedia - imagine if visitors could mark their attention to specific lines and the links that the followed. Subsequent visitors could perhaps see links that led to particularly useful additional articles or references.

I sometimes run workshops to recruit new people to contribute to Wikipedia and my usual spiel does not include any talk on "how to edit" Wikipedia but deals with why contribute and about how to incorporate Wikipedia into one's normal day-to-day activities. I sometimes take pictures from walks, record bird calls and research topics for my own learning. I compare what I learn with what Wikipedia has to say and where it fails, I try and fix defects. This does not actually come in the way of my learning process or work much but I like to think that it helps others who may come looking for the same kinds of things.

Incorporating Wikipedia into normal learning practice - should only need a small incremental effort.

The real problem in some parts of the world, such as in India, is that not everyone has access to good enough routes to learning - experts are often inaccessible and libraries are often poorly stocked even if they happen to be available. Of course there are privileged contributors who do have access to better information sources than others but these are the people that often look at Wikipedia and complain about its shortcomings - it seems likely therefore that the under-privileged might be better at contributing. In recent times, Russian underground sites like sci-hub have altered the ecosystem in a kind of revolution but there are also legal channels like the Wikipedia Reference Exchange that really go a long way to aiding research.

Of course there are an endless array of ways in which one could contribute - by translating from one language to another - if you are proficient in two languages - there is the gap finder which allows you to find what entries are on one language and missing on another - . If you are interested in challenging your research abilities and want to see how good you are at telling good and reliable resources from websites with "alternative facts and news" then you should try finding references for dubious or uncited content from .

One of the real problems with Indian editors on Wikipedia is that a large number of them support their additions with newspaper and media mentions and many of them do not know what reliable sources mean. Information literacy is key and having more scholarly information resources is important. I have therefore tried to compile a list of digital libraries and resources (especially those with India related content).

Here they are in no particular order:
Although all of these are accessible, you may need little tricks like finding the right keywords to search, using the right google operators in some cases and for some people finding references for obscure things is fun. And some of us, like me, will be happy to help others in their research. With this idea, I created a Facebook group where you can seek references or content hidden behind a paywall. This assistance is provided in the hope that you can summarize your research findings on Wikipedia and make life easier for the ants that walk by in the future.


  1. The list of digital libraries has been very useful, and timely, Shyamal - thanks a lot!

  2. Adding this to my bookmarks, Shyamal! Thanks a lot. I have been using digital library of India for a while now, and it is indeed a treasure trove of literary works! Found a record of presence of Eurasian otter in a 1880 gazetteer of Balaghat, which was only recently recorded again by some researchers in the district.