Academia’s grey markets offer rich pickings for the untenured

Marketisation, precarity and global competition have combined to create a vast market for academic ghostwriting, says an anonymous scholar

March 7, 2019
Illustration of demon with pencil horns
Source: James Fryer

We have all heard the sob stories about the poverty and precarity endured by the tens of thousands of adjunct professors in the US. But what if I told you that these people are only suffering because they have failed to enter or succeed in academia’s grey markets – in which six-figure salaries are the norm?

Times Higher Education recently reported that one UK company offers a “complete PhD service” for £36,000, including thesis composition and viva coaching. The company claims to have “supervised” more than 3,000 customers already. In my well-informed estimation, that represents the tip of the iceberg.

One adjunct I know earns almost $120,000 a year. He works between three and six hours a week teaching a social science at an elite university, earning about $20,000 a term. He spends the rest of his time writing master’s theses and doctorates, charging between $10,000 and $15,000 for the former and about $30,000 for the latter (he leaves the less lucrative undergraduate and master’s papers to the lower end of academia’s shadow professoriate). He types away for two or three months on a beach and doubles his annual income – all perfectly legally.

Immense opportunity has been created by rising tuition fees and the accompanying unwritten rule that prohibits academics from failing students even when they harbour suspicions about the authorship of their submitted work. Universities need to get them in and crank them out – preferably in master’s courses. Who do you think writes all those theses? The students? Get real.

Most dissertations in the social sciences (the area I know best) follow formulaic structures, using standard regression methodologies. Even a dim adjunct only needs a couple of weeks to run the regressions – earning between $5,000 and $7,000 (depending on the complexity and how much explanatory text they provide).

Some more capable adjuncts supplement their incomes further by writing conference papers for colleagues on the tenure track, earning about $10,000. Many of these papers are subject to no formal quality review if you know the conference organisers; the client reads the ghostwritten paper on the plane, delivers it and reports one more bureaucratic tenure hurdle leaped.

But it is journal papers that are the bread and butter of the shadow professoriate. Universities worldwide increasingly require staff to publish several papers a year in journals indexed in Scopus or the Web of Science. If you bought your doctoral dissertation and struggle with your teaching and administration loads, you will never be able to produce original research. But $15,000 will get you around that problem.

Academics in the developing world are the most reliable customers. Global university rankings and the competition they elicit have led universities even here to impose a host of requirements on tenure-track academics and postdoctoral researchers, including acquiring Western degrees and publishing regularly in respectable journals. Because these requirements often come from the ministry, whole faculties need to avail themselves of native English-speaking academic mercenaries to meet them.

Where does the money come from? Well, a young faculty member in a “nearly developed” country can sell about 20 term papers (or straight exam grades) per term for up to $120 per student. The increasing prestige and earning power associated with academic brands makes such outlay worthwhile for the student, while increasing income inequality boosts the numbers of parents rich enough to underwrite it. If the academic also supervises master’s and doctoral students, they can make much more by selling theses and dissertations directly to them, cutting out the middleman.

Again, the market is there because government workers often receive automatic pay increases for a PhD. Typically, the fraudulent theses are reviewed by peers up to the same trick and are never made publicly obtainable, so there is little risk of censure.

One developing world university alone, with five social science departments needing articles, conference papers and essays – as well as theses for the part-time foreign degrees its staff are pursuing by correspondence – generates perhaps 50 customers. Multiply that upwards and you see how much money there is to be made.

I would argue that all this represents the healthy development of future knowledge markets. Universities and colleges will see that simply imposing quantity (as opposed to quality) requirements on professors leads to widespread cheating. Students will realise that they cannot pay others to do their work for them after graduation. And employers will realise that they cannot take a piece of paper bearing an academic logo at face value.

After the market shakes out accordingly, the shadow professoriate will get new titles. They will be called professors. But they won’t be working in a place we recognise as the modern-day university. They will be working in new institutions that thrive on achievement, rather than the fraudulent fruit of a broken hiring and tenure system.

The author – not an adjunct – has chosen to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from colleagues, and worries that readers would (wrongly) attribute these practices to his current employer.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Giving the customers what they want is not always right

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