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    Can China’s JSTOR Bounce Back?

    It’s been a tough few years for CNKI, the country’s largest academic database. But a challenging business environment could finally push academic publishers to embrace the digital era?

    On Sept. 6, 2023, the Cyberspace Administration of China fined China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) — the country’s equivalent to JSTOR — 50 million yuan ($6.8 million) for illegally collecting users’ personal information. It was the second major regulatory action against CNKI in the past nine months: Last December, CNKI was fined another 87.6 million yuan over its monopolistic business practices.

    CNKI is China’s leading academic database. With over 280 million research papers, it has a market share that dwarfs similar domestic databases and accounts for over 90% of searches and downloads of academic publications nationwide. Operated by a company linked to the prestigious Tsinghua University, its influence is not limited to collecting research papers: Some higher education institutions are only willing to count peer-reviewed publications toward a scholar’s research output on the condition that they appear on the platform.

    That power has made CNKI a target of both public and regulatory attention. In late 2021, retired professor Zhao Dexin won a lawsuit against CNKI for copyright infringement after it collected his work without authorial authorization, while last year the Chinese Academy of Sciences announced it was halting the use of CNKI’s services due to its high subscription fees. The past few years have seen regulators probe everything from its business practices to its overseas services.

    CNKI is hardly the first academic database to earn the ire of its users. In 2019, the University of California system announced a boycott of Elsevier, the Dutch publishing giant in charge of some of the world’s top academic journals after a dispute over fees and open access. Still, it’s worth asking how CNKI reached this point — and what the current backlash might mean for the future of Chinese academic publishing.

    CNKI was born in the mid-1990s, when the Tsinghua-affiliated entrepreneur Wang Mingliang began experimenting with fully searchable databases of academic publications on compact disks. Wang envisioned the venture, then known as China Academic Journals CD Edition, as a way to provide content to journal editors as well as users such as libraries.

    It was not long before CDs began to give way to the internet, however. In response, CAJ’s parent company pivoted and proposed the concept of a “national knowledge infrastructure,” or NKI, which it claimed could become an “interactive network platform for the production, dissemination, diffusion and open utilization of knowledge.” In addition to its journal database, CNKI began building a more comprehensive academic database, including such resources as dissertations, newspapers, and conference papers. It also developed tools such as a collection and editing system and an academic misconduct detection system in the hopes of opening new markets for its services.

    Between its large scale and the aura of its “national project” branding, CNKI quickly became the go-to for academic journals in China looking to make the digital transition. However, its business model — in which editorial departments submit e-versions of their journals to CNKI for inclusion — has its limits. CNKI simply digitizes academic papers that have already been produced, rather than engaging in the knowledge production process. It is thus detached from academic authors and editors. Even today, despite numerous attempts to expand its offerings, CNKI’s core business and main source of profit is still the academic journal database formed in its early years.

    Because that database only collects and makes available existing content, and CNKI does not own any of the papers it offers to users, it must engage in cutthroat competition to maintain its market position. These practices cannot make up for the lack of content, however. Compare CNKI’s model to Elsevier, which owns a diverse mix of assets, including everything from leading publications like The Lancet and Cell, to the full-text database ScienceDirect and the online citation service Scopus.

    The recent regulatory actions against CNKI have brought renewed attention to the deficits of its business model. The Zhao Dexin case not only shed light on CNKI’s poor copyright protections; it also signaled that the database’s intellectual property costs will likely rise in the future. That puts its core business under threat at a time when consumers and regulators are already pushing back against the platform’s high fees and monopolistic practices. Likewise, the CAC’s punishment highlighted the legal, ethical, and technical problems of CNKI’s business, as well as the challenges it faces adapting to the growing scrutiny of internet monopolies.

    Perhaps most pressingly, although CNKI once offered a convenient solution to the problems of digitalization, its widespread adoption and stranglehold over academic publishing has actually disincentivized journals from taking full advantage of digital technology. Rather than exploring new forms, many academic journals remain stuck in the era of paper-based publishing.

    Whether it is the joint establishment of new digital publishing platforms for journals, the establishment of national open access publications, or other novel solutions, the current state of Chinese academic publishing is ripe for disruption. If CNKI can escape its rut and adapt, then there’s still hope that it could become an important driving force in this transformation. If not, it could find itself relegated to the history books.

    Translator: David Ball; editor: Cai Yiwen; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: alexdndzstudio/VectorStock/VCG)