I was reading a Vietnamese blog (Arhaeological*Highlights) when I came across an entry here which criticized a young scholar for publishing an article on an academic web site in which he did not acknowledge the earlier work on the same topic by a well-known scholar. The author of this blog also criticized the academic web site for publishing the piece.

I’ve read other works by this young scholar, and know that he is serious, so I took a look to see what the issue is. To be fair, my guess would be that this scholar wrote this piece in somewhat of a hurry, and probably does not see it as representative of his best work.

So I do not want to criticize this young scholar himself, because I think he is capable of doing good work, and he has done better work than this piece before.

That said, in reading his short piece I saw signs of a phenomenon which is increasingly common and which is extremely unhealthy not only for scholarship, but just for general knowledge as well. What is more, this is an issue which is not restricted to Vietnam, but can now be found everywhere.

I call this phenomenon the “Wikipedia-icization (Wikipedia hóa) of scholarship.”

How does it work? Like this. When you need to write something “academic,” you first go read Wikipedia, and then you follow whatever active links are at the bottom of the page to whatever materials are in Google Books. You then write up your results, cite your sources, and voilà! you have produced a piece of “scholarship.”

So when I looked at this article in Vietnamese, I saw signs of this. The article is about ornaments that historically can be found on the roofs of structures like Buddhist temples in Vietnam and which take the form of a mythological creature. This mythological creature originated in India, and is known in Sanskrit as a “makara.”

Among the seven cited sources in this article on the makara inVietnam, I saw that two are in English.

I then did a Google search for the term “makara,” and of course the first page to appear was Wikipedia, where the article cites these same two sources (#1 and #6).

Both of these sources are active links, so I followed them to see if the information matched.

The author writes that “The mythical creature makara in Indian culture lives underwater. Originally, the makara often had the head of an animal (head of an elephant, head of a crocodile, . . .), and the back part was a tail of a fish, or sometimes the tail of a peacock.” [2]

Loài thú huyền thoại makara trong văn hóa Ấn Độ chuyên sống ở dưới nước. Ban sơ, makara thường có hình đầu thú (đầu voi, đầu cá sấu,…), phần sau là đuôi cá, cũng có khi là đuôi công trống [2].

The author then cites this work as the source for this information: Robert Beer (10 September 2003). The handbook of Tibetan Buddhist symbols. Serindia Publications, Inc.. pp. 77.

This is an odd citation, as publishers do not indicate the exact day when they publish a book (10 September). Instead, they indicate the year (2003). As it turns out, however, this is exactly how someone cited this source on Wikipedia (see above).

Now, looking at page 77 in The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, we find that it does talk about the makara there, and it does describe what it looks like. It says that, “It has the lower jaw of a crocodile, the snout or trunk of an elephant, the tusks and ears of a wild boar, the darting eyes of a monkey, the scales and flexible body of a fish, and the swirling tail feathers of a peacock.”

 

Ok, perhaps the author simplified this passage. Then again, it looks much more likely that he simply got his information from this un-cited passage on the Wikipedia page:

As for the other citation, the author says that “Makara in Sanksrit means a kind of sea dragon. In English it is translated as ‘sea-dragon.’ Sino-Tibetan languages refer to it as a ‘water essence.’ [3] Vietnamese now often call it a ‘water monster,’ and in Hindi it has the meaning of a crocodile.”

Makara trong tiếng Sanscrit nghĩa là một loài rồng biển, dịch sang tiếng Anh là “sea-dragon”, các tiếng trong nhánh Hán – Tạng gọi là “thủy tinh” [3], người Việt hiện nay thường gọi là “thủy quái”, còn trong tiếng Hindu thì có nghĩa là con cá sấu.

Ok, the citation in the middle of this passage is from the famous Sanskrit-English Dictionary by Monier-Williams. That work does not say how this term is referred to in Sino-Tibetan languages. The footnote, therefore, should go at the end of the previous sentence.

Why did the author place the footnote after the reference to Sino-Tibetan languages? Because that’s how it appears in Wikipedia (as does the reference to its meaning in Hindi which this author does not cite):

Again, I’ve seen serious writings by this scholar, so I know that he is capable of much better. In fact, it’s precisely because he is capable of much better that I feel the need to write this blog entry.

Further, this piece is a demonstration of a problem which is much much larger than this one piece of writing or this one young scholar. It is a problem which is already bad, but which is going to get worse and worse and worse. Our “knowledge” is increasingly getting limited to whatever is available on Wikipedia, regardless of whether it is correct or not.

If “scholars” publish “academic” or “serious” writings which repeat what any person can put on Wikipedia, then there will no longer be anything that we can call “scholarship.”

Serious scholars have to remain serious. If even serious scholars get lazy, then scholarship is doomed.