The Professor Who Took on China’s Academic Goliath, and Won
For the last two years, 89-year-old Zhao Dexin waged a lone legal battle against the China National Knowledge Infrastructure, or CNKI — an academic research platform with near-monopoly status in China.
Last month, his efforts finally paid off when a court ordered CNKI to fork out more than 700,000 yuan ($110,000) in compensation to Zhao. On Dec. 10, CNKI issued Zhao an apology too, which remains prominently displayed on its website’s homepage.
Since the highly publicized verdict, Zhao, a retired professor and economic historian at the Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan, has drawn widespread attention and support on the microblogging platform Weibo.
Zhao’s campaign against CNKI began in 2019 when he discovered CNKI had collected more than 100 academic papers he had written into its database without his authorization.
Operated by Tsinghua University and its subsidiaries since 1999, CNKI — which also boasts central government backing — has slowly muscled its way to a monopoly in academic publishing.
As of 2019, its Chinese Academic Journals Database (CAJD) contained 3,964 exclusively authorized journals, accounting for 43% of the total number of journals in the Chinese mainland. Among these, 194 ranked in the top three of their respective disciplines, accounting for 64% of all journals that boast such a ranking.
And it is flush with funds too. For more than a decade, CNKI has maintained an annual profit margin of over 50%, dwarfing even Western platforms such as Elsevier — the Dutch scientific journal giant — which is often used as a point of comparison.
But behind this commercial success is a litany of questions and complaints both institutional and individual subscribers have raised over the years: From studies funded by public money put behind exorbitant paywalls to murky and chaotic intellectual property management.
For students and researchers, publishing papers into CNKI’s databases is crucial for survival in the academic world. Such is its power that even after winning against CNKI in court, plaintiffs often can’t afford to have their papers removed.
Zhao says his papers were first published in journals and then acquired by CNKI without his knowledge. He was neither informed of this nor did he receive any remuneration. Court documents show that CNKI claimed it had obtained permission from the journals.
But the Beijing Intellectual Property Court dismissed CNKI’s claims and determined that there was insufficient evidence to prove that these journals had the relevant rights to begin with.
Since Zhao’s victory, CNKI has removed his papers, and stated in the apology that the continued dissemination of Zhao’s work would be properly resolved. According to Zhao, they are yet to reach out to him.
For Zhao, immediately removing the articles the moment they become the subject of an IP lawsuit runs contrary to the mission of CNKI as an academic platform.
Despite his successes in court, one issue against CNKI is yet to be resolved.
In 2006, Zhao signed a contract with CNKI to create an electronic version of his work, “The Dictionary of Chinese Economic History,” on the condition that he would receive royalties per download.
To this day, however, he’s received nothing in the bank account indicated in the agreement. When he sued them in 2019, he discovered that CNKI allegedly opened another bank account on which it faked his signature. For this, he took CNKI and the bank to court again in 2021.
“If I do one thing, I must see this through to the end,” says Zhao.
The following is Zhao’s story, in his own words.
I discovered CNKI had infringed my intellectual property rights when a student told me that they downloaded my book from that platform for a fee of 26 yuan.
I was never paid a dime, and my people had to pay to use it? Is that reasonable? I’ve never cared about money my whole life; that’s why it took me so long to realize something was wrong.
What I want is not money, but my rights. I began work on the book in the 1980s. It involved a huge amount of hard work.
I was conscious of intellectual property from very early on. When I was a young scholar, somebody plagiarized my work. It was a truly helpless state to be in. They were far away in another province, so I had no way of tracking them down. At the time, China did not have laws to protect intellectual property rights, but now, legal protections are in place.
I knew from the start that challenging CNKI in court was not going to be easy. But I wanted 100% success. In addition to what my lawyer did, during litigation, I needed to present my published articles to the judge.
Sometimes, this meant tracking down people with whom I’ve co-authored papers to obtain their permission to sue. I found about a dozen people, all friends or familiar colleagues. About 80% of them agreed.
Everyone has a grouse with CNKI’s arguably monopolistic position, but most just accepted the status quo. They’re afraid to have their papers taken offline because getting published on CNKI has now become non-negotiable if you are to move ahead in the academic world.
Some of the people I’d worked with in the past, therefore, said they weren’t willing to get involved and did not give permission. I fully understand and respect that. Everyone’s got to do what’s best for them, right? Even some of my students. But this didn’t affect my relationships with them at all.
During this time, the person who most encouraged me is a close student friend of mine. CNKI removed all his articles as well. But he didn’t waver.
Some schools have very unreasonable protocols. I brought one of my journal articles to them, but they refused to acknowledge it. They would only acknowledge articles published on CNKI.
When deals are being negotiated, authors are clearly the most vulnerable party. The journal would sign a contract with CNKI — giving them access to my papers — without me even knowing. CNKI exploits this advantage with journals so they can get away with not paying authors anything. Their deals are something that I had no control over.
If my papers are taken offline, the reach of my ideas will be greatly reduced, but I’m not too concerned about that. At my age, I have all the credit that is due to me. So it’s not terribly important. It won’t be hard to find my books and articles. If they are not available on CNKI, there can be other, smaller outlets.
But the truth is that CNKI’s main rivals don’t pay authors either. I have legal representation and am suing them as well.
Since I stood up for my rights, the editor-in-chief of an academic journal whom I have known for three years called me and said, “Come on, why not drop it?”
You see, if papers start getting removed, authors might start to sue. Perhaps journal publishers believe that without CNKI, their articles get little traction. So they’d rather not have me start a fuss.
I told him that lawyers are already involved, and the matter will be settled lawfully, regardless of what you and I have.
Right to knowledge
I’ve known how to use a computer since the ’90s, and I’ve been online ever since. I just didn’t need CNKI when it first came out.
My first tryst with them was in 2006, when they came to me with a contract for an electronic version of my “Dictionary of Chinese Economic History.” It has now become this big dispute that is still in court.
The contract stipulated that every time someone purchases this electronic version, whether specific excerpts or the entire work, I shall be paid a percentage of that purchase. However, I haven’t seen a dime since I opened a bank account specifically for this deal.
Furthermore, CNKI went to the same bank, opened an account in my name without consulting me, and even forged my signature. Now, the bank has confirmed that I wasn’t the one who signed.
So this year, I filed a lawsuit against CNKI and the bank with whom the account was opened.
I’m from Hunan province, so I can be quite stubborn.
During these two years, my court appearances have never stopped. My grandson advised me to spend less time on them and take care of my health. I take regular walks now and do a lot of things to stay fit and rested.
Some of the professors I know say that, at this age, it’s not like we still need the money, so why bother? However, people in my closest intellectual circle didn’t object once. They all applaud me; it has even inspired some of them to wonder: why don’t they stand up for their rights, too?
I do this with daily consumer products as well. I can shop online, and when the quality is poor, I demand a refund. My students know that I have a tenacious streak and a bit of a character.
I started to publish papers way back in 1952. I plan to keep writing papers until I’m 90, and I will not give up for even one day. I’ve been very competitive my whole life. I don’t know why. People all know that when I do something, I follow through.
Doing research at my age, of course I have to control and plan my schedule more carefully. It adds up to about four or five hours of research a day. I look up different sources in the print publications in which they were originally published, as well as archives. I also use books and hard copies of periodicals.
So I’m confident I can live without CNKI for academic research.
Our school library specifically set aside an archive for me and gave me two rooms with more than 40 bookshelves and 6,000 books. I know what books I need, and I even have an assistant to help me sort through them.
What CNKI provides is convenience; it offers certain references. However, research is about creating new knowledge — this is something that CNKI cannot replace.
When it comes to the public dissemination of knowledge, I actually take my hat off to them. But this can’t serve as a justification to exploit those who create knowledge. My goal is not to take them down — I just hope that they’ll change their ways to operate lawfully and cultivate a healthy market.
Plus, we should allow multiple platforms like this to co-exist and engage in healthy competition with CNKI, rather than letting one become too big to challenge.
As told to Chen Canjie.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Header image: Shi Yangkun for Sixth Tone)