Top research body cuts use of China’s largest online academic database over steep fees

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China’s top research organisation, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), will suspend its use of the country’s biggest online academic database because of its hefty annual subscription fee.

A notice issued by CAS’ National Science Library earlier this month said it had covered the academy’s subscription fees to CNKI, or China National Knowledge Infrastructure, since 2008 but the fees had been rising steeply every year based on CNKI’s influence in the market, according to Hongxing News, an online news service also known as Red Star News.

CNKI, or China National Knowledge Infrastructure, was launched in 1999 by Tsinghua University and its subsidiaries.
CNKI, or China National Knowledge Infrastructure, was launched in 1999 by Tsinghua University and its subsidiaries.

“In 2021, the total cost of the CNKI database for CAS reached 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) which accounted for a ‘giant’ part of CAS’ subscription resources … 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 notice said.

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On Friday, the library said it would not renew the CNKI subscription and access to the database would cease on Thursday, according to the report.

A library staff member confirmed the news to the media and said the library would replace CNKI with other research databases, such as Wanfang Data or Cqvip.com.

It is uncertain if or when the academy would resume its subscription, but “at least this year we don’t have a plan”, the employee said.

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A researcher at CAS who said he no longer used CNKI because most of his work involved English-language research, said he was not told about the suspension.

Launched in 1999 by Tsinghua University and its subsidiaries, CNKI has near-monopoly status in China.

It has more than 280 million academic articles and 9,305 journals, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the published journals in mainland China. Over 40 per cent of the material is drawn from exclusively authorised journals, according to its website.

CNKI has long been criticised for its monolithic status and expensive subscription fees. Over the past decade, at least six Chinese universities have suspended the use of CNKI because of the rapid rise in fees.

Wuhan University of Technology Library said in 2016 the CNKI subscription increased by a massive 132 per cent between 2010 and 2016, with an average annual increase of 19 per cent.

To defend the rights of the university, it negotiated firmly with the database, the library said. But just 11 days after the notice was issued in 2016, the university said it would resume its subscription.

CNKI lost a legal battle over copyright infringement in December after an 89-year-old retired professor accused the database of collecting more than 160 of his articles without his permission.

The lawsuit was started in 2019 after Zhao Dexin, who taught economic history in Wuhan, found his papers, which were first published in journals, were acquired by CNKI without his knowledge, he was not paid for them and he had to pay to download them.

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The Beijing Intellectual Property Court ordered CNKI to remove Zhao’s papers, pay him more than 700,000 yuan in compensation and issue an apology on its website.

Ni Jing, an associate professor at East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai, said CNKI had a problem with fair competition in the market.

“CNKI has the most comprehensive content … The biggest problem is that it has become the only comprehensive database. Under this situation, regardless of the costs or fees, there is a problem from the perspective of fair competition in the market,” she said.

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