Egyptian Knowledge Bank to give free access to online journals, but will it fulfill its promise?

The state-funded Egyptian Knowledge Bank project will provide free access to net-based research resources that normally charge hefty subscription fees, officials announced Saturday. Many educators cheered the news, though some fear it may be a costly flagship project when the state’s limited resources could have been better spent on more urgent problems.

Once the Knowledge Bank website is launched in January 2016, anyone with an Egyptian IP address will be able to freely peruse a range of online publications, including Nature, National Geographic, Encyclopedia Britannica and many more, Presidential Specialized Council for Education and Scientific Research chair Tarek Shawki told the privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Shawki first signed agreements with international publishers on November 11, according to the American University in Cairo, where he also serves as dean of the School of Sciences and Engineering.

“By providing these materials free of charge, the Knowledge Bank ensures that all Egyptians, no matter what their economic circumstances, will have the tools they need to excel in their education and research,” he said at the time.

The project will lay a solid groundwork for jumpstarting education reform in Egypt, Shawki told the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, and since it’s internet-based, it will have far greater outreach than a traditional brick-and-mortar library. All 90 million Egyptians will be able to benefit from the project, he claimed.

49.6 of Egypt’s 90 million citizens are internet users, which is a relatively high percentage of the population. But some educators worry that most people won’t be able to take advantage of the bank because the majority of its databases are in English.

That language barrier will pose a “huge” obstacle to the project’s goals, according to Seif Abu Zeid, a founder of the recently closed Tahrir Academy.

“There is a lot of emphasis that this will be made available to 90 million Egyptians, but most don’t speak English,” concurred Farida Makar, a researcher in education history.

Officials say they’re aware of that problem and have taken steps to address it. Joyce Rafla, a member of the Presidential Specialized Council for Education and Scientific Research, told Mada Masr that the Knowledge Bank would give access to materials in both English and Arabic.

“It will offer curricula in Arabic, and Britannica has content in Arabic that will help. Other databases agreed that they will arabize some of their content,” she said. 

Another benefit to the site, according to Abu Zeid, is that the open access to research databases will remove many of the obstacles facing Egyptian researchers, who either cannot afford subscriptions or are part of a university that cannot afford subscription fees.

Gaining access to research materials from private journals and other for-profit online publications has long been difficult in Egyptian academic circles. While the American University in Cairo is able to pay for online journals and databases, public universities like the University of Cairo aren’t able to do the same.

That’s why Nagla Rizk, a professor of economics who specializes in economies of knowledge, believes the project is a positive move.

“This is a good step in the direction of expanding access to knowledge, removing an economic barrier,” she told Mada Masr via email. “It will be important to have a large proportion of material in Arabic and other content directed to build capacity and develop skills.”

Aside from the question of language and access, Makar is concerned about the project’s funding. She wondered if money for the project was coming from the education budget, which is already severely limited at only 2 percent of the 2014/15 state budget.

“How much does it cost to sustain access to these databases? Where did and where are they going to get the money to do this?” she asked. “How sustainable is it, especially given the fact that Egypt is facing an educational crisis?”

Makar was also wondered how far that money would stretch. “Are the databases available for one year?” she asked, “or the next hundred years?”

Rafla said she wasn’t sure where funding for the project was coming from, explaining that the presidency works out that side of the equation, not the council. But she told Mada Masr that the Knowledge Bank had secured open access to the databases for four years, and users would be able to keep the content they downloaded during that time period. She also stressed that this is a perpetual license, so the knowledge base would be constantly updated throughout the four years. 

In the past, multiple institutions including the Supreme Council for Universities, the Academy for Scientific Research, the Armed Forces and private universities all paid varying amounts for this content, Rafla continued, but “now, the payments will be consolidated and available for all, even for users who are not affiliated to any institutions.”

Makar was still concerned however, pointing to several other attempts by state and private institutions to create open access digital databases that ultimately failed due to lack of long-term funding and other issues. Given these failures, she says, “the question is whether we should have invested in something like this.”

Despite these concerns, Rizk says it’s good that the project is going forward.

“While I am aware of the budget constraints, I am supportive of using alternative models of teaching and learning that young people can relate to and work with,” she said. “Only this content needs to be used and capitalized on.”  

Rafla also clarified that the council was leading with this initiative because it is relatively easy to establish, and the council then plans to complement it with other projects including teacher training programs and orientation workshops for researchers.


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