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Some Thoughts on the “Egyptian Knowledge Bank”

ElHassan ElSabry

14 February, 2016

On January 9, 2016 the Egyptian government launched a website (accessible only using an Egyptian IP address) as part of the government’s initiative towards “an Egyptian society that learns, thinks and innovates”. The Egyptian Knowledge Bank (EKB) is supposed to be a repository of many scholarly journals, databases, eBooks, k-12 school curricula, educational videos and pictures. It is supposed to cover all fields of knowledge from medicine, electronics, agriculture and history to sports and cooking instructions.

EKB came to existence as an initiative from the newly established Specialized Council for Education and Scientific Research (SCESR). The council is an advisory body reporting directly to the president and has already been under some criticism for being yet another addition to the already complex network of government entities responsible for education and scientific research in Egypt.

The list of participating publishing houses is a university librarian’s dream come true. EKB has signed 4-year license agreements to acquire all content or some products of the following: Elsevier, Springer-Nature, Sage, Wiley, Wolters Kluwer, Emerald, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Other types of content are provided by Thomson-Reuters, Encyclopedia Britannica, Discovery Channel, Cengage Learning, press-reader and 12 other educational/scientific content providers. Earlier on November 14, 2015, representatives from all of these organizations (along with SCESR members) were featured on TV while meeting with the Egyptian president. The meeting took place in the largest hall of the Etihadiya presidential palace (see above).

A press conference took place after that, where three council members introduced the project and talked about how EKB will help in reviving “civilization that exist under the skin of every Egyptian farmer”. Later during the press conference, both Gino Ussi (Elsevier’s Executive Vice President Research Solutions Sales) and Christopher Scott (reported to be Vice President of Discovery Education) gave speeches to express their excitement about EKB. Here, they stand on the left side in front of the screen used to display EKB's introductory video during the press conference at the palace.

The State Information Service (SIS) described EKB as “a step aiming at building a civilized well-educated society”, “the biggest digital library in the world” and “Egypt’s spring on the path of progress and global competition in the age of science and information”. Many media outlets (both government-sponsored and private) echoed the same rhetoric. A poster including the president’s portrait side by side with a listing of EKB’s advantages (see below) has also circulated among different online news outlets.

 

 

The EKB website has four portals that cater for different segments of society.

1. Researchers

2. Students

3. Children

4. General Readers

 

Overlap between these segments is taken care of by authorizing those registered under one portal to access portals of less specialization. For example, those registered as researchers can access content available to students and general readers. To gain access as a researcher or as a student you need to register from within your university/institute premises to ensure the right IP address. Such requirement already created a lot of frustration among those affiliated with organizations that lack or have very poor internet access to start with. Another interesting issue related to signing up for an account was the requirement that every user should enter his/her national identification number, which government announced is necessary for usage statistics.

I am an Egyptian citizen and currently doing my dissertation on guiding policy-making related to issues of Open Access to research outcomes. In fact, it was a very remarkable coincidence that the announcement about EKB came while I was preparing for a study (collaborating with a unit in the Egyptian government… not SCESR) about the level of access to scholarly journals Egyptian researchers have. The idea (which is still an ongoing project) was to do the following:

  1. Analyze all papers published by Egyptian researchers (excluding internationally co-authored ones) between 2005 and 2015 to identify the journals they cite
  2. Determine how many of these journals are already Open Access (OA)
  3. Match the non-OA journals to the list of journals subscribed to by the Egyptian University Library Consortium or other units of government responsible for signing license agreements with scholarly publishers

The goal is to try to build an image of what the actual situation is and recommend some polices for consideration by government. That said, there are three points that need to be discussed related to EKB.

With regard to the portal for researchers, it was mentioned in the press conference announcing EKB that one of the objectives was to ensure Egyptian researchers get access to the research they need. It was also pointed out that different organizations in Egypt (public universities and research institutes) were already subscribed to some of the content made available through EKB. The idea was to terminate all those contracts and negotiate a national license to cut unnecessary government spending. Another positive outcome was that EKB would provide more content than is already available. In this regard, I believe EKB does a great job. Of course, it would have been better if research was done to identify the exact needs of Egyptian researchers to avoid purchasing unnecessary services. However, the approach of EKB to subscribe to full packages of content is understandable in the light of how publishers currently behave. In such agreements, publishers tend to enforce Big Deal solutions, where a large portion of content is lumped together in a take-it-or-leave-it kind of offer.

Another concern (more for the other three portals) is the fact that most of the content is provided in English. In fact, the head of SCESR said in a TV interview that 70-80% of the content is in English. He mentioned that the council would consider translating content that appears necessary for society in the future. He also talked of plans to give 4-6 weeks of intensive English courses for interested citizens so they can make good use of the current EKB content. The dominance of English language in the content provided has fueled much of the criticism EKB received in media (example).  While English is supposedly taught as foreign language for more than 8 years at school for the average Egyptian student, the credibility of the entire educational system is questionable. Decades of neglecting public schools (home to over 17 million students) and difficult economic conditions (causing students to leave school for jobs to support their families) have both had their toll on the quality of school graduates. Official government estimates put the number of illiterate people at over 25% of the population in 2013. Around the same time, the Global Competitiveness Report ranked Egypt at 118th (among 118 countries) in the quality of primary education. The council’s argument is that EKB is only a step on the way and such kind of criticism (claiming that more pressing issues should be given priority) does not take into account the big picture of educational reform in Egypt.

That “big picture” is actually a place for another concern. When the council was inaugurated by presidential decision number 60/2015, it was mandated to achieve 7 missions. The first of those was to “determine the outline for government policies related to all stages of education”. So far, there is no official policy document published by the council. One could speculate that the EKB was part of the implementation the 2014 National Strategy for Pre-University Education (with goals and strategies until 2030). Another option is that EKB came as part of implementing the National Strategy for Science, Technology & Innovation (spanning 2015-2030). The position of this second strategy is actually somehow confusing because although it was prepared when SCESR as a council was around, there is no mention of it. None of its members was in the strategy planning committee. The committee involved representatives from the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research and; the Science & Technology Development Fund, among other entities responsible for setting national policies for science and education. Nonetheless, in terms of organizing fragmented government efforts, there is one advantage for EKB. That is the inclusion of other national databases created through different initiatives. One example is Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s project to digitize documents, photographs, maps and many other records to build a repository for all resources related to history of Modern Egypt (1805-1981). EKB brings this and other similar projects to one place, increasing their visibility for the interested citizen.

To summarize, EKB does provide very good access to Egyptian researchers who have long suffered to get the scholarly resources they need. Many used to resort to illegal websites to download content or ask (also illegally) for access credentials from their peers who travel on study-abroad programs. So, definitely EKB is a very good idea in this regard. Whether it was the best idea or not is debatable. There also has to be a way where the role of EKB (especially regarding the Student, Children and General Reader portals) is integrated in the context of larger strategies aiming to brighten the very dark image of education in Egypt. The issue of having most content in English is a very serious one that need immediate attention. If not tackled, EKB might face the fate of being considered yet another example of propaganda projects Egyptians have experienced on the hands of successive governments since 2011.

 

ElHassan ElSabry is currently a doctoral candidate in the field of Science, Technology & Innovation Policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, Japan. He received both his B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees in Physics from the American University in Cairo as well as a graduate diploma in Islamic Studies from the Higher Institute for Islamic Studies. His current research focus is on guiding government's policymaking related to Open Access to reseach outcomes.

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