“Phantom professors” who appear on the payroll but not on campus are certainly not exclusive to China.
Many UK academics have often muttered complaints about the little-seen professors who join their departments, with ordinary faculty left to carry out the more mundane tasks of teaching first-year undergraduates and attending exam board meetings.
Around the time of the UK’s last research excellence framework in 2014, one scholar at a top London university told me that she had yet to lay eyes on their school’s new star professor, who lived in Scotland, held a full-time post at another major university and kept his department visits extremely low-key.
The one-day-a-week contracts awarded to top researchers in the run-up to the REF also fuelled speculation that some universities were gaming league tables that would decide their institution’s international reputation and league table position.
News that some Chinese universities, awash with cash, are doing something similar may not surprise some scholars, although the large sums of easy money available for swapping round a few affiliations on research papers might raise a few eyebrows.
Some will argue that this behaviour is essentially harmless. Unless purchased in bulk, paid-for publications will struggle to make any impression on influential world rankings and will instead sway only little-seen domestic league tables, they say.
However, Jeroen Huisman, professor of higher education at Ghent University, who contacted Times Higher Education about a “visiting professorship” offered to him at a Chinese university, thinks that these posts represent a larger threat to academia than the REF game-playing seen in the UK.
“Poaching academics for the REF was different because it was assumed that lecturers would stay at the university at some point and contribute to its intellectual life,” Professor Huisman explained.
Bestowing visiting professorships on high-profile or eminent individuals, such as the London School of Economics’ (unpaid) professor Angelina Jolie, was also acceptable as most people understood the deal, he added.
“I can just about live with these positions as they tend to be ceremonial or for the sake of prestige,” he said.
“When a contract is not about academia and is only an economic transaction, it is more worrying,” he added.
Putting aside the apparent intention to distort rankings used by students, such contracts also pose a larger threat – undermining genuine efforts to foster East-West research and build academic capacity in developing nations.
With US and European scholars increasingly keen to research China, as well as work with some of the brilliant young minds emerging from Asia, it would be a shame if dubious practices put them off the noble enterprise of international cooperation.