Professor takes on China’s biggest academic database – and wins

World’s biggest digital library of Chinese journals under pressure over copyright infringement

January 2, 2022
 man chooses suitable books while reading in the library
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A high-profile case against China’s largest academic database has triggered heated debate over the future of open access publishing in the country.

Zhao Dexin, a retired professor at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law, won a copyright lawsuit against China National Knowledge Infrastructure, which was accused of uploading more than 160 of his papers without permission. A court said the agreements between CNKI and the journals that originally published the articles lacked authorisation and infringed the authors’ rights “to communicate works to the public online”, ordering the website to pay more than Rmb700,000 (£82,000) in compensation.

CNKI was launched in 1996 by Tsinghua University and its affiliated company, which is supported by government departments including the Ministry of Education. As the world’s largest database of Chinese journals, CNKI covers journal articles, theses and other forms of academic documents from more than 8,000 titles.

But following the court decision the company removed from its database all references to Professor Zhao’s papers, which caused another round of criticism.

“They can surely argue that they deleted the articles to avoid further infringement of copyright. But they also have the option to take social responsibility and try to be the bridge between scientific research and the public,” said one professor of public policy, who asked to remain anonymous.

CNKI subsequently issued a statement offering a “sincere apology” to Professor Zhao and promising to put his works back on its database “properly”.

CNKI reaches agreements with journal publishers and universities, and sells institutional subscriptions for access. However, the libraries of Peking University and Wuhan University of Technology have previously decided not to renew their subscription due to increasing costs.

More academics are now launching similar legal action against CNKI, according to local reports.

Hu Chuan-Peng, a professor in the School of Psychology at Nanjing Normal University and a co-founder of the Chinese Open Science Network, said that the case “makes the paywall issue more visible to the community”.

“I think the future of scientific communication is not only about openly accessible papers, but also materials, data and code behind those papers. Open research platforms for such comprehensive communication still have a long way to go,” he said.

The anonymous professor said academics would not boycott CNKI.

“We would like to see it keep improving and evolving, particularly doing more to promote the country’s open science, which is still in an early stage,” the professor said. “At least it can try to ‘live up to its name’ as the national knowledge infrastructure.”

karen.liu@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Scholar wins copyright suit with Chinese database

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