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Academic database faces furor over fees

By ZHANG YANGFEI | China Daily | Updated: 2022-04-21 09:33
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Public scrutinizes service as institutions quit over its rising subscription costs

China's largest online academic database, China National Knowledge Infrastructure, is under scrutiny after a library of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said it would stop using the service due to its expensive subscription fee.

A screenshot that has circulated online since Monday suggested that CAS's National Science Library had held rounds of discussions with CNKI but the database still insisted on a subscription fee of over 10 million yuan ($1.6 million).

A library staff member confirmed the service suspension to the media on Monday and said the library would replace CNKI with other research databases, including Wanfang Data and The library released a notice on its website on April 14, saying it has started a one-month trial to access the Wanfang database.

The circulation of the screenshot has put CNKI under scrutiny, with many questioning its unreasonable subscription fees and monopoly status.

In a statement released on Tuesday, CNKI said the CAS has adjusted the purchasing model for some domestic and foreign databases, allowing each institution to subscribe for the services according to its needs. The database said it will sign a new agreement and restart the service in the near future.

It said the database has provided services for the CAS since 1997, and in 2008 it signed a cooperation agreement with the CAS's National Science Library, which was responsible for procuring journals and academic theses to serve institutions of the CAS. After the agreement expired in 2021, the CAS extended the subscription to March 31 and after April 1 during the transitional period, the database continued the services without suspension.

Established in 1999, CNKI was initiated by Tsinghua University with the goal of sharing knowledge resources across society. Over two decades, it has become the most dominant academic database in the country and has made substantial profits. Corporate financial data showed the database had revenues of 496 million yuan last year with a gross profit margin of 51.3 percent.

This is not the first time CNKI has been questioned over its increasingly expensive service fees by academic institutions. In January 2016, Wuhan University of Technology in Hubei province announced it was suspending the service due to the hefty renewal price. It said the annual fees had increased by 132 percent between 2010 and 2016.

In March 2016, Peking University also released a notice of the suspension of the service and said the cost had increased too much and exceeded the library's budget. In December 2018, Taiyuan University of Science and Technology announced it was suspending the service because it had "failed to reach an agreement on the renewal price" with the database.

Zhao Zhanling, a legal adviser for the Internet Society of China, said the advantage of CNKI is that it holds the core copyright resources for the vast majority of journals. If it continues to raise prices unreasonably, it may be accused of abusing its dominant market position.

Wei Shilin, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and antitrust, said CNKI has an undisputed dominant market position and users rely heavily on it. However, whether it is suspected of abusing a monopoly position would require further determination by law enforcement agencies.

He said the subscription fees have been criticized by the academic community many times and anti-monopoly organizations have conducted investigations, but no authorities have openly responded to the public concerns or revealed investigation results.

To maintain normal competition in the intellectual property market requires continuous efforts as well as the transparency of law enforcement, Wei added.

Li Shunde, a professor at the University of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told Changjiang Daily that although CNKI has faced an intense reaction from the academic community over the years, the pressure was not strong enough to make significant improvements.

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