Academic Ghosts

indexA type of academic fraud that is widespread and strangely enough, not strictly illegal is that of ghostwriting or (as Wikipedia informs) ghosting, where articles and even complete theses (at the M. Tech., M. Phil. and Ph. D. levels) can be written by one person for another, usually for monetary considerations.

Academic ghosters can cite many famous precedents: Mozart is known to have written pieces in the name of wealthy patrons, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas was written by Gertrude Stein (although probably not just for money)  and speeches (or tweets) of most of our public figures are written by others, but in their names (usually as part of their jobs). Nevertheless,  when it comes to academics, there is something repulsive about the practice which is essentially fraudulent and which, when detected,  should invite punitive action.

This post has the following genesis. Last month I was invited to Bangalore to talk about publication ethics to a group of science students, all spending the summer in various laboratories, and who were mostly pre-publishers (namely they had not yet written their first scientific papers but very likely will do so soon). In my presentation, I touched upon the standard types of unethical behaviour- data fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, conflicts of interest, etc., but the editor of one of our leading journals happened to be in the audience, and he pointed out to me later that I had not talked about fraudulent practices such as “complimentary authorship, surrogate authorship, writing of papers/theses for monetary considerations, publishing against payments” all of which fall in a moral twilight zone.

screen2Upon reflection, I agree I could have talked about these in the context of publishing ethics, and in the future I probably shall. The problems are many, but there are also many shades of gray here and as it happens, the inhabitants of this twilight zone are of various sorts (but all have gone across to the dark side in one way or another).

The issue of what constitutes authorship of a paper is getting to be difficult to discern in these times when some academic papers can have over two thousand authors. Within each discipline/community though, there is broad agreement as to what entitles you to have your name on a paper in the field, but more importantly, what does not.

The most common form of complimentary authorship is when names are added on to a paper for their having (a) headed a laboratory (quite routine in some of our big laboratories!), (b) supported the other authors financially through public grants, say as head of the research group, but made no intellectual contribution to the work, or (c) value (real or perceived) in getting papers accepted for publication. (Sometimes, but rarely, this gets done without the knowledge or consent of the person being given the complimentary authorship; a colleague bitterly recounts the difficulty he had in getting his name removed from such a paper after it was published… How does one even begin to explain this to journal editors?!) Quite correctly, this is a practice that cannot be supported, but it is also difficult to detect, even when the journal asks (as many increasingly do) of the role of each of the authors in the paper: much can be hidden in lists. And then there is the apocryphal story of a well known academic who – for a price – agreed to add as coauthor an acquaintance who needed the paper for his own professional advancement.

Sold-Hammer-280x173Direct ghosting gives rise to surrogate authorship – one person does the work and writes the paper in another’s name. This practice is probably going to increase with time, especially when regulatory bodies like the UGC insist on a minimum number of papers in journals to compute the API (or Academic Performance Index) Score for employment or promotion. Not that asking for academic performance is a bad thing – on the contrary, it is difficult to imagine what else one would ask for. But since ghosting is not quite illegal, there are any number of agencies that provide this service, some of which advertise themselves very openly. As an article in The Telegraph reports, the job can be quite lucrative: many of these companies have their own websites, and others list themselves on websites (like Quikr!, eBay or Olx) and offer to do everything from A to Z.

Indeed, the services offered are comprehensive. I quote from one such vendor; the originally execrable text of the advertisement has been edited to be more readable. They say “By opting for our service, over 90% of our clients have reported grades that were better than what they expected.  Our service will increase the chances of approval of your academic documents. We have experience, having completed 2000 Ph Ds  from 15 countries like USA, UK, Iran, China, Korea, Brazil, Russia, Africa,  etc.” Companies like this are willing to give a Ph D candidate help with  “Topic Selection, Synopsis, Thesis, Research Proposal, Research Paper, Research Paper Published in Reputed International Journal, Software Based Project implementation, PhD Presentation”.

Isn’t this what should be done at one’s home university along with one’s Ph D mentor? One might argue that companies like this exist in order to fill a niche, the vacuum of academic guidance and mentorship at our existing universities, but that is neither here nor there. The surrogacy of authorship goes well into the realm of academic fraud, especially when they assure you that “the work” is “delivered with Plagiarism Report checked on License Based Software”.

Some months ago there was a sting operation at Ber Serai, the market that lies midway between JNU and the IIT Delhi. Theses can be purchased there pretty much for the asking, and come in two flavours. In Model A, existing theses (that have earlier been submitted to some other university) are available, and all that the customer has to do is to “change the initial credits and the name of the university”. In Model B, one can get “original content written […] It will cost you two rupees per word for the original content. For a 10,000 word thesis you will have to pay 20,000 rupees. It won’t be detected in any plagiarism software, that is our guarantee.”

The existence of such “thesis shops” in the neighborhood of many universities has been an open secret for a long time, and the resistance of some universities to openness in sharing their scholarship through digital academic repositories has been partly driven by the fear of having their theses copied (or discovered to have been copied!).

One can even go a step further and dispense with being a bonafide student altogether. Some years ago, another exposé revealed that “educational consultancies can help you to get certificates for Class 10 and 12, degrees in Ph D, B Tech, LLB, MBA, MA, MD and MBBS from a range of universities, irrespective of whether it is a regular or distance learning programme. The cost depends on the degree one is keen to acquire. If needed they can even organise mark sheets for several examinations at the same time.”

But if one were to just purchase a degree, one can go online and get a degree purportedly from universities in the US (or elsewhere) for your “life and work experience” so far and, of course, a substantial sum of money. One such site declares, “Being called a doctor even if you are not a medical doctor by degree is such music in the ears.  To buy a doctorate degree gives a level of competency.  Since it is the highest possible academic degree, you can explore a lot of opportunities if you have credentials that would prove a doctorate degree. If you buy a PhD you will achieve promotions at your workplace without having to write complex projects and attending classes that will ruin your family or work life. If you buy a PhD from our company you will get unlimited career opportunities and you will gain the respect of your employers and co workers.”

Let me leave it there for now.

There are two versions of publishing against payment.  In one, the journal that accepts a paper may, after the peer-review process is over, require a fee for publication, usually to make the paper open access or for other processing charges. (The journals are quite legitimate and of quality, it is the publication model that requires that the cost of publication be borne by someone, and in this case, it is the author.) In the second case, which is the fraudulent one, the journals do no peer-review and merely publish articles based on the fees charged. Such journals – and there are many of them out there – will publish literally anything if the price is right, and some persons (one hesitates to call them academics) gravitate to such journals since they have an ISSN number, and anything printed therein can be claimed as a publication when computing API scores.


In the end, it is usually all about the money. Academic advancement comes about with publications, and a ghosted thesis or papers usually results in a job or in promotions and higher salaries. Complimentary authorship is typically a quid pro quo for favours granted earlier. To be sure the fraction of academics who indulge in these practices is small, but the numbers are not negligible (especially at the M. Tech. and M. Phil. stages).

But, as recent events on the national stage demonstrate, fake degrees have a way of being found out, as do fake theses or fake publications – it often is just a matter of time. In the process, though, more is lost than merely the illusion of  scholarship. Time and effort, indeed.  But also trust, and the belief in shared values of an academic ethos.


3 thoughts on “Academic Ghosts

  1. Sir, Thanks for raising this extremely important issue and going in finer details of different forms of widespread academic malpractices…


  2. Sir,

    Subject: Academic Vampires

    What happens when a reputed faculty member steals the work of a student and tries to publish the work? What kind of an action would you recommend be taken against such an academician? What about the people and authority who don’t act on such a misdemeanor on the part of the faculty? What kind of an action would you propose sir against the faculty and the authorities?

    Would love to here your views on that sir.

    Kiran Kishore


    1. Kiran,

      this is another set of academic malpractices you are talking about, unrelated to those highlighted in my post. Every institution has its own procedures for dealing with complaints of the kind you have raised. Although it will not immediately satisfy you, such academics do lose their reputation (or gain one for being unscrupulous). Things do take time, and “Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small”.


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