June is graduation season for Chinese college students. But for many, the joy is overshadowed by a tricky task: the graduation thesis.
For students who are buried by work at their internships, hiring a ghostwriter to plan out and complete their thesis appears to be a smart – if dishonest – solution.
Hiring a ghostwriter to complete one’s thesis is not an uncommon among Chinese college students. Thousands of people offering the service can be found on Baidu and at varying prices. Postgraduates, secondary school teachers and professors frequently hire others to pen their academic works.
“I can earn as much as 100,000 yuan for ghostwriting a thesis,” said Hu Zi, a thesis ghostwriter on the question-and-answer website Zhihu.
Since March, Hu Zi has received more than 100 messages inquiring about his ghostwriting service.
“I usually ask my clients about the specifics, like the topic and word count requirements, and then evaluate whether or not I can do the job,” he said.
Hu Zi said he earned 60,000 yuan ghostwriting theses from March to May. Most of his clients were college undergraduates who paid between 6,000 and 8,000 yuan for their papers.
But ghostwriters rarely create an original work.
“I search similar published academic papers online, then paste together passages from different papers to make a complete thesis. It usually takes less than a day,” Hu Zi said. “I spend most of the time paraphrasing the passages to fool the software designed to detect plagiarism.”
Individual ghostwriters like Hu Zi are the minority in the industry. Entire agencies cater to the growing market for ghostwritten papers.
A search on Taobao for thesis ghostwriting reveals hundreds of shops offering to help. In addition to ghostwriting, some shops help to publish the thesis in a journal, which is essential for Chinese academics seeking professional ranks and titles.
A common price for a thesis in the humanities is 80 to 120 yuan per 1,000 Chinese characters. Such agencies outsource the work to individual ghostwriters, mostly college graduates or doctors. Approved ghostwriters are asked to join a QQ chat group.
“It is common to see the agency take a 70 percent commission on each order,” said Zhang, a former member for a ghostwriting chat group. Zhang said the chat group regularly received orders from Taobao.
But not all agency ghostwriters can make significant income. Zhang, a student at Shandong Normal University, complained about the pay to ThePaper.cn. The agency Zhang joined not only paid less than competitors, but fined ghostwriters for bad comments.
“A writer who accrues three complaints in a month is at risk of being kicked out and fined 300 yuan,” Zhang said.
“Thesis ghostwriting agencies are not unique [to China]. We have found a similar phenomenon in Central Asia countries such as Kazakhstan and Russia. But China’s condition is worse than imagined,” said Cameron Ross, managing director of Elsevier, one of the world’s leading publishers of scientific and medical information.
Elsevier was tasked with investigating the surge in Chinese publishing in Biotechnology: an Indian Journal in 2014.
“We contacted the authors of certain publications. Based on their feedback, we found that some of them paid from $1,000 to $2,000 to ghostwriting agencies,” Ross said. “But the only standard we have for publishing rests on the quality of the paper.”
Wu Yishan, vice-president of Chinese Academy of Science and Technology for Development, studied the Chinese thesis ghostwriting industry with his student Hu Zewen.
Wu said the thesis ghostwriting booms is linked to China’s professional title and rank system. Nearly all universities and academic institutes require a specific number of published theses when evaluating a faculty member’s rank and title.
“There are even some institutes requiring Ph. D students to publish at least one thesis in the SCI or EL journals. Otherwise, the student is not allowed to attend their thesis defense,” Wu said. “Chinese academic institutes value thesis quantity over the quality.”
The legislature loophole provides a grey area for ghostwriting agencies’ development as well, even though paying for thesis ghostwriting is considered an “illegal transaction” by the government.
“Thesis ghostwriting is now a supervision blind spot for educators, police and commercial management officials,” said Tan Shujie, a judge at Jinan People’s Court. Tan said lawsuits against ghostwriting agencies are thrown out on account of a lack of legal provisions.
Whom to Blame
“The failure to supervise China’s online trade has indirectly helped the thesis ghostwriting industry,” said Zhao Wenjian, a student at Shandong University of Finance and Economics. “If platform supervisors tightened their punishment for advertising thesis ghostwriting services, things would improve.”
In May, Sun Yat-sen University approved new rules for graduate students’ theses. Students who fail their thesis may cost mentors their their title.
“It is a warning to mentors who are too busy to communicate with students about thesis requirements,” said Lin, a student at Sun Yat-sen University. She said the new regulation will help to promote the interaction between mentors and students.
While public commentators have heaped condemnation on students who kick academic honesty to the curb, Li Meng, an online writer at cnhubei.cn, said the students were not to blame.
A survey of the academic ability of China’s university faculty by Youth.cn found that 62 percent of all students think the professors limit their instruction to textbooks and slides. Some 48 percent of the students complained that many course slides are years out of date.
“Colleges need to consider whether their own faculty evaluation systems have a role in creating so many unprepared students,” Li said. “Requiring every graduate to write a thesis is not a fix for bad instruction. Schools need a more diverse approach to professional ranking.”