26 January 2013

Nigeria: A Challenge to Citizens - Share Your Knowledge With the World


Last week I discussed the problem of academic knowledge often being kept behind paywalls by Western journal publishers and how internet activist Aaron Swartz had challenged this by trying to open up information to the world. This week, I'd like to look at the other side of the issue--how Nigerians can move beyond just accessing and consuming knowledge produced abroad to accessing and contributing to the world knowledge produced in Nigeria.

The internet is a democratizing tool. We can already see how the internet has enabled more Nigerian voices to be heard worldwide, through the rise of blogging and the social media. I will discuss this in further detail next week. However, there is still a need for Nigerian scholars to start being more intentional about making their scholarship more visible online.

Right now, it is true that the most internationally visible scholarly research is via journals published in the West. But, one way to "move the centre," as Ngugi wa Thiong'o has called for, is to undermine large corporate publishers by making other respectable journals open access and Nigerian journals more visible online. There is no reason why the most influential research on Africa should be published in Western journals. If more African academics made their research available online, it would not only open their research to other African intellectuals but also force Western intellectuals to pay more attention to research being done on the ground.

African Journals Online provides an excellent resource to distribute African journals for free or for a fee. However, I am disappointed that there are not more Nigerian Journals who give free access to their online content, as charging a fee makes it less likely that the journal will be read. Some Nigerian journals available through AJOL for free are The Bayero Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences; Creative Artist: A Journal of Theatre and Media Studies; Edo Journal of Counseling; Nigerian Health Journal; Nigerian Journal of Paediatrics; Sokoto Journal of Veterinary Sciences; Unizik Journal of Arts and Humanities and others. University and professional association websites can also upload back copies of these journals. SONTA (Society of Nigerian Theatre Artists), which makes past journals and conference proceedings available on their website, is a good example.

The move towards open access journals is not just in Africa. An April 2012 Guardian article reports that "Exasperated" with paying around 3.5 million dollars a year for journal access fees, " Harvard University has encouraged its faculty members to make their research freely available through open access journals and to resign from publications that keep articles behind paywalls." This is a good time to start investing in these structures.

Academics should also encourage university webmasters to create faculty pages, where each scholar can put up a summary of research, contact information, and upload publications. If going through the university is too unwieldy, academics can start blogs, where they can upload their CVs, bibliography of their publications, and publications they want to make available. Wordpress, Blogger, and other blogging platforms are free and easy to use. Having a presence online helps make scholars more visible, and puts more pressure on other scholars and journalists to acknowledge their work. Professor Abdalla Uba Adamu has been a pioneer of making information about Hausa popular culture available online, not only creating his own blog but also creating and moderating the yahoo groups Finafinan Hausa and Marubuta on Hausa filmmaking and literature, which enable discussions between scholars, fans, writers, and filmmakers. He often makes his research and that of others available online through the group. In addition to his own blog, Professor Yusuf Adamu has started a website Marubutan Hausa [Hausa Writers Data Base].

Similarly, rather than having PhD and MA theses gather dust and mold in libraries, PDF copies can be uploaded online so that more people have access to them. If they are published, then links can be provided to show where they are available for purchase. More innovative Nigerian publishers are making their books available as e-books or print-on-demand, so that those without access to Nigerian distributors and bookstores can access them abroad.

When I first came to Bayero University in 2008, I was hosted by the Mass Communications Department. Then Head of Department Dr. Umar Faruk Jibril asked me to help them start a Hausa Home Video Resource Centre. One of the things I worked on was creating an online resource for research and information about Hausa films: http://hausahomevideoresourcecentre.wordpress.com. The website includes a blog for opportunities for filmmakers, a page of Hausa film summaries written by my students in a Gender and Media class I taught, a working bibliography of research on Hausa film, a page of links to articles in the popular media, a filmography of Hausa films by director, and a calendar of events having to do with Hausa popular culture. Using easy blog templates, anyone with a passion for and knowledge of a subject can create this sort of website on any subject. It would be great if Hausa literature scholars could start a website of this sort to keep records on the names and numbers of Hausa books released to the market each year. The School of Oriental and African Studies in London has an excellent web resource on Hausa popular literature, listing around 731 novels from the late 1980s to 2002. However, because they are not on the ground in Nigeria, their records are not only limited but now also 11 years out of date. This is a task that scholars in Nigeria, with more immediate access to authors and marketers, would be much better equipped to tackle.

Websites that are collaborative can be even more useful and up-to-date. An example of this is the excellent site put together by Mahmud Fagge, whose hausafilm.tv lists the most extensive database of Hausa film practitioners and films that I know of. Because he uses collaborative wiki technology, anyone can sign up to contribute knowledge to the site.

Ironically, however, although Fagge uses wiki technology, until early January 2013 there was no entry for "Kannywood" in the global encyclopedia Wikipedia. While the open nature of Wikipedia (anyone can contribute to it) makes it inappropriate for academic citations, it is an excellent tool for making basic background knowledge available to the general public, and it is often the first website people turn to when they are seeking information. Wikipedia has versions for contributions in Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, Fulfulde and a few other Nigerian languages. However, with the exception of Yoruba, which after Arabic is currently the largest African-language Wikipedia site with over 30,000 entries, these language sites remain woefully underdeveloped. There are also glaring absences in articles about Nigerian literature in the English language version. A few weeks ago when I was writing on Labo Yari's novel Climate of Corruption, I searched Wikipedia for various Nigerian writers. I was shocked by how many prominent Nigerian writers do not have entries on Wikipedia. Odia Ofeimun, arguably one of the most famous poets in Nigeria, had no entry. Abubakar Gimba, author of many novels and the focus of the recent Abuja International Conference on Language and Literature, had no entry. Neither did a host of other well known authors. Fortunately, this is a problem that is rectifiable by anyone with an internet connection and an interest. After I tweeted about the lack of entries on Northern Nigerian writers and Kannywood, the next day someone tweeted me that two entries had just been created for author Balaraba Ramat Yakubu and Kannywood, though they remain "stubs" waiting for more input from people who know the field better. I hope this article will inspire more readers to sign up for Wikipedia and contribute to articles in any area they are interested in. Having students create Wikipedia entries would be a great classroom assignment for creative university lecturers.

These are just a few ideas on how, not only scholars but anyone with knowledge and interest can help contribute to global knowledge. Next week I will focus specifically on the great contributions Nigerians online have been making to world literature.

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