Commercial Monopoly and Open Research: A case of the China National Knowledge Infrastructure

Authors: Lijun Fan
Dr Lili Yang, Assistant Professor, The University of Hong Kong

The 21st-century academia is marked by the wide use of academic research databases (e.g. Web of Science and Scopus) and their dominance in academic publishing. These databases have made significant contributions to promoting knowledge dissemination and academic exchange at global, regional, and national levels. With access to a specific database, anyone could read research outputs published and included in the database. Further, open access articles can be freely read and downloaded. However, the development of the databases is a double-edged sword. The high commercial pricing and suspected monopoly/oligarchy are de facto building walls between academia and the general public, and walls from open research. This blog focuses on the ongoing relevant efforts in China in response to the dominance of the China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI) in the Chinese academia and reflects on possible approaches to promoting open research.

CNKI’s dominance and boycotts against it in China

 As the largest knowledge collection and sharing platform in China, CNKI has been a dominant player in the development of Chinese academia. As of 2022, CNKI includes more than 95 percent of all of the officially published Chinese academic resources and more than 200 million domestic and international journal documents. Notably, the emergence and development of CNKI per se signify the pluralisation of language in global academic publishing, which is conducive to global epistemic diversity and justice.

Accompanying the success of CNKI are the growing concerns over its monopolistic practices. In April 2022, the Chinese Academic of Sciences (CAS), a top research organisation in China, announced its decision to end the subscription to CNKI and to search for new approaches to replacing CNKI, for example with alternative databases. The major reason behind the decision was the mounting subscription fees requested by CNKI, compared to its much lower cost (Lem, 2022). In fact, this is not an isolated case. In the last decade, there were at least six universities who have temporarily suspended their subscriptions to CNKI, including Peking University, Nanjing Normal University and Wuhan Institute of Technology. However, neither of these suspensions lasted long after universities failing to find decent alternative databases, which demonstrates the difficulties in challenging the monopolistic status of CNKI. In May 2022, the Chinese government launched an anti-monopoly investigation into CNKI in the midst of the growing attention and criticisms. This remains an open issue.

Behind CNKI, More Cases Internationally

The aforementioned attempts are not unique in China. For example, in January 2017, German universities and research institutions criticised the high pricing of Elsevier and had rounds of negotiations with Elsevier in order to cut the subscription fees (Matthews, 2018). In June 2020, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) decided to terminate its negotiations with Elsevier on a new journal subscription contract, which might have cost more than $2.7 million for the subscription of around 700 Elsevier journals (MIT Libraries, 2022).

Calling for open research: the common good versus profit-making

Overall, we argue that a major obstacle in pursuing open research is the tension between the common good nature of knowledge and the profit-making nature of commercial publishers and research databases.

The above discussion has shown that isolated efforts by single institutes often lead to failures. As the common good idea suggests, arguably only concerted common efforts by the whole research communities, either at national, regional, or global levels, could make a difference. This calls for all institutes and researchers to join hands together in promoting open and even free knowledge sharing. In education, open research can contribute to the sustainable development of research-based policies and practices. It is worthwhile for the state to manage the knowledge monopoly and promote the common good under the condition that the limits are well mastered.


This blog is a shortened and slightly modified version of our article, “Commercial monopoly and open research”, first published on International Higher Education on October 2022:


Lem, P. (2022). Academy’s database boycott may herald Chinese publishing shake-up. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from

Matthews, D. (2018). Will other countries follow Germany into battle with Elsevier? Times Higher Education. Retrieved from

MIT Libraries. (2022). Scholarly Communications – MIT Libraries. Retrieved from

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