Achal Prabhala


How Wikipedia Works (and Doesn’t)

Ten years of Wikipedia later, we know what it does well. But what doesn’t it do well? And what doesn’t it do at all?

Wikipedia works very well with editors located in North America and Europe (and select high-income countries in Asia), who edit and contribute material that has existing documentation – usually in print form. Two of the core principles of Wikipedia are Verifiability (i.e. “not truth” – a fact should be available to cross-checking in an existing, reliable source) and No Original Research (i.e. any research cited should be existing, published research).

The history of the printed word, is, however, littered with unreliability. And in the present time, books – for the large part – are still a function of the region that invented the printing press 550 years ago. (In 2005, the UK published 1 book for every 372 people; South Africa published 1 book for every 7869 people; India produced 1 book for every 11,371 people). The sum of human knowledge is far greater than the sum of printed knowledge.

I would like to take you through the world of Wikipedia, viewed on the inside and from the outside, through a film that documents a research project on oral citations. As Wikipedia – and the Wikimedia movement in general – moves outwards, into the world, what are the kinds of influences that the world might bring to Wikipedia? And how can we sidestep the easy solution of tropical remedies for tropical people, and fashion a more universal ethic around citations and sources?


The Bible Delusion – Doug Brown, Powell’s Books. (This is a review of Bart Ehrman’s book “Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why”; an NPR interview with the author is available here).

A brief History of the Internet from the 15th to the 18th Century – Lawrence Liang, in Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2011.

The Missing Wikipedians – Heather Ford, in Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2011.
You might also want to read…

We spend our lives as a tale this told: Oral historical narrative in a South African chiefdom – Isabel Hofmeyr, Heinemann, 1994. (See the introduction, scanned and reproduced here with the permission of the author).

The Other Side of Silence – Urvashi Butalia, Zubaan/ Duke University Press, 2000. (Excerpt available here).


Wonky Innovation

In 2005, India created a new patent law. There should have been nothing revolutionary about this, for as a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), India was bound by conditions laid out in the Agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, or TRIPs. As a ‘developing’ country, India was bound to legislate the protection of product patents by 2005.

A peculiar – and providential – set of political circumstances, however, led to the creation of a law whose effects are still being understood. There has simply been no precedent for the kind of patent protection enshrined under Indian law: it was so confounding that Novartis, the Swiss pharmaceutical multinational, took the Indian government to court to challenge its patent law, eventually withdrawing in defeat.

What does Indian patent law do? Simply put, it raises the bar on innovation, with particularly effect on pharmaceuticals, thus creating a unique (and high) bar for what is patentable. Over the last few years, a group of colleagues and I have been examining the manner in which patent law translates across borders, particularly between a bell-weather system (the US) and an important emerging market (India). The results are surprising. An overwhelming majority of patented compounds in the US fail the test in India.

What does it mean that innovation isn’t what it used to be? And is it that what innovation used to be isn’t itself what it used to be?


Access to Medicines in India: A review of recent concerns – Chan Park and Arjun Jayadev, Yale Law School, Information Society Project, 2010, available here.

Five years into the Product Patent Regime: India’s Response – Sudip Chaudhuri, Chan Park and K.M.Gopakumar, United Nations Development Programme, 2010, available here.

An analysis of patents granted in the US vs patents allowable in India from FDA approvals between 2005 and 2007: data from a forthcoming paper – Chan Park, Arjun Jayadev and Achal Prabhala, available here.
If you have the stomach for this…

TRIPs flexibilities, access to medicines and the domestic pharmaceutical industry in South Africa: An analysis of patents, competition and medicines law – Chan Park and Achal Prabhala, United Nations Development Programme, working paper, 2007, available here.