On May 13, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), China's top market regulator, filed a case against China National Knowledge Infrastructure as a suspected monopoly based on previous investigations.
The platform, widely known as CNKI, is China's leading database of academic resources.
On the same day, CNKI released a statement pledging to "firmly support and fully cooperate with the investigation."
"Knowledge is power" is a household line in China and much effort has been made to promote education in the past decades. In June 1999, initiated by Tsinghua University and its affiliated business Tongfang Co. Ltd., a public company listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, and endorsed by government departments including the Ministry of Education, CNKI was founded with the main purpose of "transmitting, sharing and helping to realize the market value of the intellectual resources of the society as a whole."
With the resources it could pull together, CNKI soon become the largest academic electronic resource integrator in China, collecting more than 95% of officially published Chinese academic resources. By the end of 2017, CNKI had had over 20,000 institutional users, more than 20 million individual users, 2 billion full-text downloads per year, and more than 150,000 simultaneous online users. More than 90% of China's academic resources retrieval and full-text download came from CNKI.
In terms of international resources, CNKI has carried out copyright cooperation with more than 650 publishing houses in more than 60 countries and regions, collecting more than 57,400 foreign periodicals and 866,000 books, totaling more than 200 million pieces of foreign literature. Its international partners include Elsevier, Springer, Wiley, Taylor & Francis, Emerald, American Computer Society, and others. With its dominant position as an academic resource integrator, CNKI has become an indispensable tool for university students and researchers. It is the most inclusive and authoritative source for academic literature in China, particularly for social science research papers published in the Chinese language.
CNKI is the only academic electronic journal authorized by the State to officially publish doctoral dissertations. All doctoral and master dissertations must be uploaded to CNKI for review to prevent unwitting plagiarism.
There is nothing wrong with CNKI charging for its services, as it hires many talented people to run the database. Although people get things free from the internet all the time, quality professional service always asks for a decent price.
But over the years, CNKI has tarnished its reputation by abusing its dominant position to earn excessive profit by exploiting its contributors and users.
In 2017, CNKI raked in 971 million yuan (US$152m) in revenues with gross profits at 61%. Statistics from the company's annual report for 2021 revealed that its gross profit rates are between 54% and 58%.
For years, CNKI has been raising subscription fees to the extent that more and more universities and research institutes find it too expensive to use. In April, there were rumors that the information center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) had decided to stop subscribing to CNKI, which asked 10 million yuan for its services. Although CNKI later claimed the cooperation with CAS would continue, more than one university confirmed that the subscription fees have been hiked over the years.
Nevertheless, CNKI is alleged to be stingy regarding remuneration to authors, and is alleged to have infringed on their copyrights.
Media reported in December 2021 that Zhao Dexin, a retired professor of Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, won a lawsuit against CNKI, which took in more than 100 of his papers without authorization. CNKI apologized and paid Zhao more than 700,000 yuan in compensation. That event perhaps served as a trigger for SAMR's latest investigations.
The case evidenced the Chinese Government's decision to safeguard IPR and root out monopoly in every industry. Hopefully, CNKI will better serve its users and continue to contribute to the spread and growth of knowledge — humankind's shared treasure — after this setback.
(The author is an English tutor and freelance writer)