Experts doubtful as China launches new open access push

While new database signals ‘ongoing endeavour’, dominance of existing subscription database unlikely to be challenged any time soon

December 3, 2023
Residents stand at the entrance to Beicibeiyu village, blocked off to illustrate Experts doubtful as China launches new open access push
Source: Getty images

A newly established database represents China’s latest step towards open access publishing, but major obstacles remain if the country is to revolutionise its model of scholarly communication, experts said.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) recently launched PubScholar, an academic database that offers free access to about 170 million science resources, including over 87 million articles, more than 1 million dissertations and nearly 63,000 books. A range of CAS institutions and national partners have supported the project, which describes itself as being designed to “meet the basic needs of guaranteeing academic resources” for society as a whole.

PubScholar is regarded as an attempt to rebalance the distribution of academic resources away from CNKI, the country’s largest academic database, which was fined after an anti-monopoly investigation last year and over privacy breaches this September.

Scholars have accused CNKI, which allows scholars to access content from a range of national and international titles, of levying “sky-high” subscription fees, which have risen by about 10 per cent every year since 2000. Several institutions have publicly boycotted the site. In 2016, Peking University said the subscription fee had gone beyond its budget and declared that it would not “compromise easily”. Authors, too, have complained about CNKI, alleging that it has infringed their copyrights.

Xiang Ren, a lecturer in media and communication at the University of Sydney, viewed PubScholar “as the ongoing endeavour of the Chinese Academy of Science to promote open access and facilitate its development in China”.

“The value of PubScholar lies more in its role as an OA infrastructure, integrating various OA resources and enhancing their usage across China,” said Dr Ren, co-author of Open Knowledge Institutions.

However, he was doubtful about whether PubScholar could significantly erode CNKI’s dominance.

“Given CNKI’s widespread subscription by Chinese universities and institutes – despite complaints about its high price – and the comprehensiveness of its resources, the academic community has become accustomed to the platform,” Dr Ren said.

One problem faced by the new platform is the limited amount of open access publishing happening inside China. In a statement, PubScholar’s leaders invited high-quality domestic and overseas journals to join the initiative. “Since the number of Chinese journals that this platform cooperates with is relatively small, willing Chinese journals are particularly welcome to join the cooperation,” it emphasised.

According to Dr Ren, “Though major Chinese academies and funding bodies have their own OA mandates, there is a lack of a consistent OA and open science policy within the country. OA is not a priority in China’s research policy, and its potential and value have not yet been fully recognised by policymakers and the central government.

“This is further compounded by some misconceptions or biases against OA, often mistaking it for predatory publishing and low-quality outputs.”

Ken Hyland, visiting professor of applied linguistics in education at the University of East Anglia, and former director of the Centre for Applied English Studies at the University of Hong Kong, agreed.

“There seems to be an ambivalent attitude to OA in China. For many, it corresponds to predatory publishing and for others a way to spend their government subsidies for research,” he said.

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