DUBAI: A Dubai-based edutech start-up has launched a digital library for researchers in Saudi Arabia — the first subscription-based library for scholarly literature of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
Academic literature is usually hidden behind expensive paywalls or restricted to those who are affiliated with big organizations. Now Zendy, developed by Knowledge E, is offering users affordable access to scholarly works from around the world.
In step with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 development agenda and its efforts to foster a culture of research, innovation and entrepreneurship, Zendy will give students, professionals and hobbyists access to thousands of articles, e-books and scholarly resources.
“Zendy is a massive online library available to every single individual in the region,” Kamran Kardan, Knowledge E founder and CEO, told Arab News.
“If you take a look at the current status of how you can access academic content, books, journals and literature related to that, it’s very cumbersome,” he said.
“You have to be a part of a larger institution, university or organization like the ministry of health, or a place where they can actually afford access to the content. And not all institutions can afford access to all the multiple publishers that are available out there.”
Zendy’s aim is to break down barriers to scholarly discovery by providing individuals with affordable access to the world’s latest research and literature — drawing inspiration from the evolution of music and television consumption.
“The whole idea stemmed from what’s happening to the entertainment and music industry, like Netflix and iTunes, and applying it to academic content, making it affordable,” Kardan said. “So, the whole idea was to open all of that content up and make it affordable, on a monthly subscription or an annual cost.”
With a background in publishing at Oxford University Press in the UK, Kardan has made it his mission to promote open access and to help higher education institutions discover new research strategies through various business frameworks. He moved to Dubai 15 years ago to promote scholarly access among universities, businesses and consortiums across the region.
“When I moved in 2006, it was the start of a transition from the print world to electronic,” he said. “Libraries were predominantly shelves full of books and journals and, if you could imagine a researcher who was trying to find something, it was such an effort to go through all these different indexes that you have available.
“To actually find all the relevant information you were looking for was a task of its own.”
In the years that followed, Kardan worked with consortiums in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to provide scholarly access on a national level. “Many universities did not have that much access during those days,” he said.
“I remember a university in Kuwait where I had one of the most complete collections of journals from one of the top publishers and going through that transition of moving everything to online — providing more digital libraries to the region was the story of those days.”
Beyond the evolution of digital infrastructure itself, publishing has also had to account for the slow pace of cultural change, with many people continuing to prefer books in paper format for all manner of reasons, including the simple aesthetic of touch and smell.
So far, most of Zendy’s content is only available in English, although some is offered in French and other languages, with the objective of linguistically diversifying further in the near future.
“The idea is to have a comprehensive online library at the fingertips of every single person,” Kardan said. “It is no longer an issue that you can’t afford it, no matter where you’re located, if you’re not part of a larger institution. We don’t target institutions, we target individuals.”
After launching in Jordan in 2019, Zendy spread out to the UAE, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain and, from this month onward, it will be available in Saudi Arabia. The online library has since accumulated thousands of users across the Arab region, hosting over 120,000 publications including more than 30,000 journals and 30,000 e-books.
Zendy also allows users to save searches, export citations and navigate easily according to material type, subject, publication title, language and more.
“You can search, find the article, download the PDF and you can use it as many times as you want,” Kardan said.
“We would like to have more publishers, and this is something that is growing. We have three of the top five publishers in the world and you can imagine that, for publishers that have existing business models with organizations, it is difficult to shift and make everything accessible to all individuals.
“So, it’s also a great step for publishers and that’s why we want to break this barrier.”
To access content, users sign up for a free trial period before choosing between a monthly or annual subscription. Zendy’s business model is based on revenue sharing with publishers based on usage. And, true to Kardan’s ideals, some content will remain free to all.
“There is a portion of free content that will be available in open-access format around the world in a few months’ time,” he said. “So, individuals who are happy with free content can keep that. And then in order to have access to the more premium content, users will need to sign up to Zendy Plus, which is what is currently available.”
Kardan hopes Zendy will have a big impact on the countries of the MENA region, playing a role in the creation of diversified, knowledge-based societies and economies. He is confident that providing easy access to information, open to all, is one way of achieving this goal.
“We are also involved in other ways of building that in terms of conducting workshops in academia and building capacity,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how small you are, you can still make a change. In whatever we do as a company, we try to make that change and impact and we think that Zendy is one of those that has the potential to have a global impact.”
Although in its early stages in Saudi Arabia, subscribers include entrepreneurs and healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses. Kardan’s goal is to scale up the platform into a global operation in order to allow easier access to content to many more people around the world.
There are also plans to include videos, book summaries and magazines down the line.
“It’s really to increase readership in all of those areas and to shift this literature world online,” he said. “For me, success is to eventually look back and see what impact I was able to have on the people and society around me.”
• Twitter: @CalineMalek