2022-04-19 10:00:58

China’s top research organization is suspending the use of the country’s biggest online academic database due to an expensive subscription fee, domestic media outlet Red Star News reported Wednesday.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences said the organization could no longer afford to pay for the China National Knowledge Infrastructure database, according to the media report, citing a screenshot from an internal email. The yearly subscription fee for CNKI had reached over 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) last year.

“In 2022, the two sides had active discussions in terms of costs and subscription models, but after many rounds of tough negotiations, CNKI still insisted on a renewal fee close to 10 million yuan,” the CAS email said.

CAS will suspend its access to CNKI starting April 20 and instead use Wanfang Data and Chongqing Weipu — two less comprehensive academic databases — as replacements, a CAS librarian told Red Star News. The member of staff also confirmed the authenticity of the email seen in the screenshot circulating online since Monday.

Established in 1999 as a government-supported national digitization project, CNKI soon overtook its pioneers to be the most dominant academic database in China. The database is owned by China’s elite Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Although CNKI was transformed from a state-owned entity to a private company in 2014, it still has a monopoly status in China. The academic database has the ability to easily approach universities and journals for cooperation, convincing them on low-price partnerships and even exclusive deals.

Between 2010 and 2016, CNKI raised its prices by an average of nearly 20% annually, and fees climbed up by 132.86%, according to Wuhan University of Technology.

Subscription fees for universities and research institutions, however, vary from hundreds of thousands to millions of yuan, based on the number of sub-libraries in its subscription database, according to domestic media.

Fudan University paid 825,000 yuan for a CNKI subscription in 2022 while Tsinghua University shelled out 1.88 million yuan, the report said. In comparison, Wanfang and Weipu only charged universities around 100,000 yuan in 2021.

Its hefty fees led to several universities — including Peking University, Wuhan University of Technology, Taiyuan University of Technology, and 10 academic intuitions in the southwestern Yunnan province — canceling their CNKI subscription since 2012. However, many of those schools were forced to resubscribe temporarily after pressure from students and instructors.

On microblogging platform Weibo, CAS’s decision to unsubscribe to CNKI has drawn widespread attention and support. Many users slammed the academic database for profiteering from educational services.

“The original intention of the establishment was to promote academic research and convenience,” one Weibo user wrote, referring to CNKI. “Now it’s a powerful obstacle. Once it becomes a monopoly, it will easily become an evil dragon.”

Xu Zhijun, a researcher at Nanjing University’s School of Arts, told Sixth Tone that the dominant status of CNKI is built at the cost of young scholars, who seldom get compensated for their research work.

“As part of the graduation process, students are asked to license the digital copyright of their theses or dissertation to CNKI,” he said, adding he did the same for his dissertation. “There is no payment in return. Most students will not refuse, as they are worried that they will not be able to graduate.”

Xu said he feels pressured even now to give up the copyright of his research published in academic journals.

“The number of views and downloads of their academic research on the platform is the most important reference for academic achievements today,” Xu said.

Besides taking advantage of young scholars by licensing their copyright at a low price or even without compensation, CNKI also has a notoriety of reprinting scholars’ work without their authorization.

In recent years, many established scholars have sued CNKI for infringement. In December 2021, the Beijing Intellectual Property Court ordered CNKI to pay 700,000 yuan to 89-year-old Zhao Dexin and remove his papers from the database after a two-year legal battle. 

But despite few victories, some scholars believe CNKI’s monopoly would be difficult to change, as it contains the widest range of academic papers in China.

“I don’t see any database that can replace it — at least I can’t go without it,” Xu said, adding that the CNKI database contributes to about 70% of his research work. “If the fees continue to increase and lead more institutions to suspend their subscription, it will be a huge loss for students and professors.”

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: IC)