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Helping researchers from Syria: Mendeley and the Council for At-Risk Academics

Elsevier partners with Cara to give support to researchers in dire need

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Teaching Fellow Kathryn Redpath of Edinburgh University runs a session at a recent Cara Syria Programme workshop in Istanbul to facilitate continued academic engagement and collaboration among Syrian academics, using online technologies such as Mendeley. (Photos by Kate Robertson of Cara)

In 1933, when Hitler expelled hundreds of scholars from German universities on racial grounds, Britain’s foremost scholars took action. They formed the Council for At-Risk Academics, defining their mission as “the relief of suffering and the defence of learning and science.”

Albert Einstein was one of their earliest supporters. In fact, it was at a fundraiser they helped organize in London’s Royal Albert Hall that Einstein gave his last public speech before departing for America, making a plea to “resist the powers which threaten to suppress intellectual and individual freedom.”

While most academics today need not worry about persecution, imprisonment or torture, there are sadly still many who do. The council, known as Cara, continues to come to their aid.

Now Elsevier, through its Mendeley platform, is collaborating with Cara to help them leverage technology to enhance the good work being done.

Cara focuses on extricating affected academics from immediate danger, relocating them (temporarily wherever possible) and helping them develop new skills that will enable them to ultimately return to their homelands and take up positions to continue research and teaching while benefiting their own country and community.

Academics seeking Cara’s help differ widely in their language ability and academic skills, but they all need assistance to increase their visibility and employability. Each year, academics from more than 20 countries come “knocking on Cara’s door,” according to Kate Robertson, Cara’s Middle East Adviser. A major feature of its operations is the Cara Scholars at Risk UK Universities Network, which has grown to involve 117 universities. The network supports Cara’s fellowship and country programs, whose current focus is on Syria.

Cara is now getting around 15 to 20 requests for help per week (up from 5 to 6 a few years ago). The rise reflects the number and increasing visibility of global crises affecting academia, especially in Syria, where academics of all levels and backgrounds are impacted and where there is, sadly, no resolution in sight.

Following successful schemes in Iraq and Zimbabwe, Cara launched its Syria program in 2012, using its experience to provide assistance to the many Syrian academics that have been affected by the horrors of the conflict underway in their homeland. Cara works to identify research clusters and pair Syrians with an experienced academic tutor for English for Academic Purposes (EAP) as well as discipline mentors for wider development. The Cara program involves different strands, each aimed at improving an aspect of the participant’s skillset: from EAP to academic skills development to action-learning opportunities during which professional connections can be facilitated with academics from the wider regional and academic communities.

Cara has been working with various partners to achieve its aims, and at Elsevier, we’re proud to be one of these. While providing access to Mendeley and giving advice on setting up and collaborating in the Mendeley Groups, Elsevier has also gifted 11 “Ambassador” accounts to Cara’s Syrian program, enabling full access to ScienceDirect – the world’s largest full-text research database – for those who can most benefit from this. In addition, Elsevier makes ScienceDirect, Scopus, Mendeley and ClinicalKey available to academics still in Syria and over 100 other developing countries through Research4Life, a free and low-cost access program between UN agencies and publishers.

Dr. Abdullah Samir, a Syrian academic in exile in Turkey, gives a presentation to colleagues on Ottoman history, putting newly gained skills into practice, including presentation skills and English language for academic purposes.

“Cara is incredibly grateful to Elsevier for its support of the Cara Syria Programme and the access to ScienceDirect that it has offered to some of the Syrian academics in exile with whom Cara is working,” said Kate Robertson, Cara Middle-East Adviser.

In the Mendeley Group that has been set up for the Cara Syria program, Cara Technical Lead David Read, Director of Technology Enhanced Learning at the University of Sheffield, has been sharing EAP resources. He is using the functionalities of the platform to create discussion groups whereby the Syrians and their UK academic partners can converse, collaborate and make use of Mendeley’s other features (especially the reference management aspect) to hone their academic skills.

Scholars who have fled Syria are learning to use technologies such as Mendley to support continued professional connection and engagement. The workshop is part of the Cara Syria Programme.

The difficulties of finding a reliable internet connection can make conversation between the Syrians and their tutors and mentors difficult; we anticipate that Mendeley’s functionalities will enable useful offline communication as well as provide a useful means of sharing, using and discussing resources. It is common and understandable for displaced academics to feel isolated and helpless. Mendeley can provide a mechanism for networking as well as establishing an accessible academic profile and creating international links that will hopefully aid such users in their future careers.

“The work Cara is doing to help academics at risk is truly amazing,” said Dr. Hylke Koers, Director Research Communities at Elsevier. “It’s inspiring to see how they are using Mendeley to facilitate their training program, and we’re happy to be able to support them.”

It is clear that 84 years after it was established, Cara’s mission appears more urgent and important than ever. At Elsevier, we look forward to continuing our collaboration with the Cara organization and encourages all readers to see what they themselves can do to help. In doing so, we again recall the words of Einstein who noted:

It is only men who are free who create the inventions and intellectual works which to us moderns make life worthwhile.

Just days after his Royal Albert Hall speech, Einstein sailed to New York to take up a post at Princeton University. This was meant to be a temporary role, though Einstein never returned to his native continent. Cara strives for a different outcome for its charges.

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