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2019-03-29 06:45:52 Voices

The skyrocketing cost of academic journal subscription services has made headlines around the world. Late last month, for example, the University of California announced it had cancelled its subscription contract with Elsevier, one of the world’s largest academic publishers. In mid-March, an alliance of Norwegian research institutions declared itself unable to come to an agreement with Elsevier that would keep costs in check.

A similar debate is unfolding within China. Academics and students alike have accused the country’s largest, most powerful academic publishing database, Zhiwang, of leveraging its near monopoly over the domestic market to extort sky-high subscription fees from students and public institutions. While there’s generally no easy answer for balancing the needs of users and shareholders, since the company was built on the back of significant state support, the state should not hesitate to step in and get Zhiwang back in line.

Zhiwang is part of the China National Knowledge Infrastructure, or CNKI. Although Zhiwang was technically launched in 1999 by Tsinghua University and Tsinghua Tongfang — a private company closely linked to the school — from the beginning, it received extensive backing from the central government, which considers the platform crucial for improving Chinese research and academic work.

Zhiwang leveraged that support to establish itself as the dominant academic research database in China. Compared with its lower-priced competitors like Weipu and Wanfang Data, Zhiwang maintains an unassailable market share. According to its own figures, Zhiwang has compiled more than 95 percent of officially published Chinese academic resources, and it owns the rights to the country’s most important databases of master’s theses and doctoral dissertations.

In short, if you’re a Chinese academic looking to write or publish in China, Zhiwang access isn’t optional. But schools, academics, and students are increasingly fed up with the site’s exploitative pricing schemes, which take advantage of its monopolistic position to shake down users who have no other recourse.

Recently, a Soochow University student sued Zhiwang after the company required him to put down a minimum 50 yuan ($7.45) deposit before allowing him to purchase a 7 yuan article, then tried to prevent him from recovering the remaining funds. This February, the court ruled against Zhiwang, saying the company’s practices constituted an infringement of consumers’ rights to free choice and fair trade.

Schools, too, are frustrated with Zhiwang’s practices. In March 2016, Peking University issued a notice that it might let its subscription expire, in part due to runaway costs. That same year, teachers and students at Wuhan University of Technology were notified that the school had temporarily suspended its subscription after a contentious round of price negotiations.

Authors, reviewers, and editors do all the hard work of producing articles, yet middlemen platforms like Zhiwang and Elsevier see almost all the profits.

Such anger isn’t unfounded. According to Wuhan University of Technology’s letter, the price of the school’s Zhiwang subscription had risen by more than 10 percent a year between 2000 and 2016 and had jumped by more than 132 percent between 2010 and 2016 alone. Tongfang’s own shareholder report for the first half of 2018 showed a net profit of more than 60 million yuan on a gross margin of over 58 percent — meaning after accounting for costs, the company retains about $0.58 for every dollar earned. 

Although to date, most conflicts between Zhiwang and schools have ended in reconciliation, there are few signs of the overall situation improving. Academic papers are public resources. Authors, reviewers, and editors do all the hard work of producing articles, yet middlemen platforms like Zhiwang and Elsevier see almost all the profits. Nor can academics simply refuse to publish with these services, as the quantity and quality of one’s publications are both important factors in academic rankings, as well as hiring and tenure decisions.

The original intention of establishing academic databases was to improve the efficiency of academic exchange. People’s discontent with companies like Zhiwang and Elsevier, who use their monopoly status to increase prices, is essentially an expression of a broader anger over the functional privatization of public resources, which in this case has enriched a few but hindered the spread of knowledge and dissemination of academic resources.

This is a global problem, and at present, no one seems to have a viable, comprehensive solution. In Europe and the United States, schools and academics are advocating for the use of open-access channels to distribute and share academic resources. Yet according to a report by the Max Plank Society, as of 2015 only 13 percent of scientific articles were published in an open-access format. Meanwhile, those that can’t afford the high cost of journal subscriptions have often resorted to pirate platforms like Sci-hub.

Certainly, China should look to outside examples when reforming Zhiwang and the academic publishing industry, but the situation here has its own peculiarities. Because it owes much of its current success to government support, we should have no compunctions about turning to the government for help resolving the problem. The same departments that helped build up Zhiwang — the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the National Copyright Administration, among others — should now be tasked with supervising and managing academic databases, including by restricting monopolistic practices and standardizing author payments.

Publically funded and supported databases should belong to the public. As part of CNKI, Zhiwang is supposed to help disseminate and promote knowledge across society. It shouldn’t be run purely by market principles, but as a public enterprise responsible for users and the public good. It’s time the company updates its business philosophy and customer service to a model that respects and protects the rights of researchers and writers, not just its bottom line.

Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Students study at a university library in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Feb. 28, 2019. VCG)