Publish or Perish: How China’s Elsevier Made its Fortune

Wang Yiwei:

During a livestreamed Q-and-A session in February, young actor Zhai Tianlin sits in front of a champagne-colored curtain holding a list of questions from his fans. He responds to each one as cutesy visual effects pop up around him, but then he’s stumped. “Is your Ph.D. paper available on Zhiwang?” He reads the question with a puzzled look, then looks straight into the camera: “What is Zhiwang?” He repeats: “What is Zhiwang?”

Known for being a “smart” actor, Zhai had then just received a doctorate degree in film studies at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy. But, viewers knew, nobody working on their dissertation in China can avoid using Zhiwang, the country’s largest database of academic papers, more formally known as the China National Knowledge Infrastructure, or CNKI. Clearly, something didn’t add up, and the video went viral. Later, Zhai was found to have plagiarized papers and to have graduated without publishing a dissertation.

Zhai apologized, and his reputation took a hit, but that wasn’t the end of the saga. People in academia noticed the sudden interest in CNKI and seized the opportunity to air their grievances with the website. CNKI abuses its legacy of state ownership to keep the Chinese world of academic publishing in a monopolistic stranglehold, they say, and uses its position to pay writers pittances while forcing universities to accept steep price hikes. All in all, CNKI makes exorbitant profits that are hard to justify, critics argue.

Such objections echo those leveled at academic publishers in the West: Why do universities that employ researchers to write papers have to pay unreasonably high prices to access those papers? For example, Dutch publisher Reed Elsevier, which also runs several online databases, has faced protests from European libraries for maintaining annual profit margins of about 37%. Still, that figure pales in comparison with CNKI’s, which for the past decade has posted an average annual profit margin of nearly 60%.