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The Dark Side

Authorship For Sale. Papers For Sale. Everything For Sale.

Academic publishing fraud in China has come up here before, but Science has an in-depth look at the problem. And a big problem it is:

“There are some authors who don’t have much use for their papers after they’re published, and they can be transferred to you,” a sales agent for a company called Wanfang Huizhi told a Science reporter posing as a scientist. Wanfang Huizhi, the agent explained, acts as an intermediary between researchers with forthcoming papers in good journals and scientists needing to snag publications. The company would sell the title of co–first author on the cancer paper for 90,000 yuan ($14,800). Adding two names—co–first author and co–corresponding author—would run $26,300, with a deposit due upon acceptance and the rest on publication. A purported sales document from Wanfang Huizhi obtained by Science touts the convenience of this kind of arrangement: “You only need to pay attention to your academic research. The heavy labor can be left to us. Our service can help you make progress in your academic path!”

For anyone who cares about science and research, this is revolting. If you care a lot more about climbing that slippery ladder up to a lucrative position, though, it might be just the thing, right? There are all sorts of people ready to help you realize your dreams, too:

The options include not just paying for an author’s slot on a paper written by other scientists but also self-plagiarizing by translating a paper already published in Chinese and resubmitting it in English; hiring a ghostwriter to compose a paper from faked or independently gathered data; or simply buying a paper from an online catalog of manuscripts—often with a guarantee of publication.
Offering these services are brokers who hawk titles and SCI paper abstracts from their perches in China; individuals such as a Chinese graduate student who keeps a blog listing unpublished papers for sale; fly-by-night operations that advertise online; and established companies like Wanfang Huizhi that also offer an array of above-board services, such as arranging conferences and producing tailor-made coins and commemorative stamps. Agencies boast at conferences that they can write papers for scientists who lack data. They cold-call journal editors. They troll for customers in chat programs. . .

The journal contacted 27 agencies in China, with reporters posing as graduate students or other scientists, and asked about paying to get on a list of authors or paying to have a paper written up from scratch. 22 of them were ready to help with either or both. Many of these were to be placed in Chinese-language journals, but for a higher fee you could get into more international titles as well. Because of Chinese institutional insistence on high-impact-factor journal publications, people who can deliver that kind of publication can charge as much as a young professor’s salary. (Since some institutions turn around and pay a bonus for such publications, though, it can still be feasible).

Some agencies claim they not only prepare and submit papers for a client: They furnish the data as well. “IT’S UNBELIEVABLE: YOU CAN PUBLISH SCI PAPERS WITHOUT DOING EXPERIMENTS,” boasts a flashing banner on Sciedit’s website.
One timesaver: a ready stock of abstracts at hand for clients who need to get published fast. Jiecheng Editing and Translation entices clients on its website with titles of papers that only lack authors. An agency representative told an undercover Science reporter that the company buys data from a national laboratory in Hunan province.

The article goes on to show that there are many Chinese scientists that are trying to do something about all this. I hope that they succeed, but it’s going to take a lot of work to realign the incentives. Unless this happens, though, the Chinese-language scientific literature risks finding itself devolving into a bad joke, and papers from Chinese institutions risk having to go through extra levels of scrutiny when submitted abroad.

30 comments on “Authorship For Sale. Papers For Sale. Everything For Sale.”

  1. Anon says:

    Sounds like Big Pharma.

  2. NMH says:

    Recently I have noticed on Google Scholar Chinese authors (with affiliations to academic institutions in China) taking credit for a publication where there name is listed on the authorship, but I strongly suspect someone else did with the same name. So, for s certain author list of publications, you have papers that include say, cancer biology and then also solid-state physics.
    How can ANY paper from China in an American journal be trusted?

  3. anon says:

    It really appears as though many Chinese journals are collections of fabrications for career advancement, not a place for the advancement of science. And I thought the US was corrupt

  4. wei says:

    is it just another model of CRO or staffing service? The person who “funds” the project gets the credit, and should be also responsible for QA (to guard against foul play)

  5. K says:

    NMH,
    Google Scholar automatically populates your references when you set it up. If you are not diligent when setting up Google Scholar, you may accidentally list papers that were not yours.
    -K

  6. HFM says:

    To be fair, if there’s real science in the papers, this is just a creative funding mechanism.
    If there are N authors who paid for the privilege, all of whom paid good money (say $10K US), that’s approaching R01 range for the real authors even at modest N. This money is ultimately coming from the government, in the form of bounties for publication.
    That may not be the intent of such bounties, but what is measured improves…

  7. Hap says:

    I wonder if this will furnish a novel fraud/plagiarism argument – “I didn’t fake the data, the people I paid to put my name on the paper did.”

  8. Curryworks says:

    This honestly was a business model I wanted to establish but I would associate with an open accesses publishing journal to make money on both ends

  9. Laurent Wada says:

    Am I the only one surprised at how cheap a first-author spot is? $14,000!? That’s it!?

  10. Anonymous says:

    This is what happens when you bring capitalism to a country that never had it: They get better at it than we are, and then we complain. It’s like how the English invented and introduced various sports like soccer, cricket and rugby to countries which then beat them at their own game.

  11. Garrett Kajmowicz says:

    > For anyone who cares about science and research,
    > this is revolting.
    I don’t get this at all. If the data and experimental results are valid, then it really doesn’t matter who’s name is on the paper.
    If the data or experimental results are fraudulent, then the best you can do is look at other papers published by the same authors to see if they are fraudulent.
    In neither case is the name attached truly useful. A paper shouldn’t be true because it is from a good source (ad hominum fallacy).
    Likewise for people who are looking for grants – there’s no guarantee that somebody who’s proposing an experiment is going to do a good job next time. (Appeal to accomplishments).
    In many ways this blows holes (again) in peer-review. These papers can only be junk if nobody attempts to reproduce them.

  12. Anonymous says:

    @11: Good point. In fact perhaps a free market for authorship may actually improve the quality of research papers from China, since nobody wants to tarnish their own reputation (and especially not pay to tarnish their reputation!) by linking their name to poor quality or fraudulent research.
    Just a thought.

  13. Pennpenn says:

    Just out of curiosity, is the last sentence in the second quote meant to be “They troll for customers in chat programs…”? It seems more likely that they’d “trawl for customers” (search diligently or exhaustively for customers), rather than “troll for customers” (agitate and antagonise on behalf of customers).
    Of course I could be wrong.

  14. Curt F. says:

    @13. Pennpenn. I think “troll” is correct. Trolling refers to fishing by dangling a baited line (or lines) in the water while moving at a slow speed. Trawling refers to fishing by hawling nets behind a vessel with no bait. The presence of a bait is important for the linguistic metaphor. Google “trolling motor” for more info (and Google trolling trawling motor for lots of threads where people are debating the exact same point, it seems to come up a lot).

  15. Ayn Rand says:

    @ 12
    I obviously agree with you!

  16. Piero says:

    @11, @12
    Just wait that someone who paid to have autorship walks past and over you in a competition for a work place….

  17. sepisp says:

    This might be less of a problem if the recruiting process worked. But, in academic evaluation, degrees and bibliometrics have become *more* important, not less. Bonuses are placed on getting degrees and papers fast, everything else be damned. You get someone who can play the numbers game well, but that doesn’t guarantee any relevant experience, i.e. a well-rounded professional.
    Unfortunately, there’s a lot of science and research that is not as efficient at generating this “karma” as an university research group aiming explicitly at higher Hirsch indices. This sort of policy puts corporate labs, government jobs, teaching, industrial management, etc. at a disadvantage. This tends to insulate the academia from the rest of the world, if you can’t advance from industry to academia.
    Case in point, in the 1990s we had a professor that didn’t even have a doctoral degree(!). But, he had decades of experience in the private sector, and was an internationally respected expert in the field. Unsurpringly, he was an excellent professor. Today, he couldn’t be hired for any other position than doctoral student. The experience, expertise, etc. count for nothing.

  18. mass_speccer says:

    Wasn’t there a Kickstarter (or similar) project a year or so ago that was trying to fund some research and offered authorship on a paper at the higher pledge levels?
    Another thing that seems to have been come less rare is papers from Chinese groups with one British/American author on. I’ve never been convinced that they’ve done a significant amount of the work – it seems to look like they’re there to make the paper look more convincing.

  19. Forget it says:

    I wonder where this money, to buy the first authorship, fits in my next funding proposals, consumables or publication cost!

  20. Sandro says:

    @11, 12: “If the data and results are valid”. Well, isn’t that the point? If those guys are already selling fake autorship and purchase data from subcontracting labs, I can only imagine that some data points that are a bit too far off the trendline will be forgotten… And I wouldn’t be suprised if there were also one or two photoshop experts in such labs and companies…

  21. Anonymous says:

    @16,20: Since all parties (employers, employees, scientists, authors, publishers, institutions, etc.) are/would all be part of the same free market, better quality papers would benefit all parties as equilibrium is established in the long term. It is only when certain parties act in their own self interests at the expense of others that problems occur in the short term, but these problems will be resolved as equilibrium is restored in the long term. In other words, cheats eventually lose out as their reputation is tarnished.

  22. The Iron Chemist says:

    @12: “since nobody wants to tarnish their own reputation (and especially not pay to tarnish their reputation!) by linking their name to poor quality or fraudulent research”
    You’re either being sarcastic or you haven’t been keeping up to date with the state of open-access publishing.

  23. eugene says:

    “I don’t get this at all. If the data and experimental results are valid, then it really doesn’t matter who’s name is on the paper.”
    Like someone mentioned before, it matters for promotions and establishes a corrupt system where unqualified people get bigger and bigger jobs at the expense of real scientists, until they eventually decide on the fate of the research money, and will probably send it down the drain due to incompetence.
    Another small problem is that you will not be able to contact the corresponding author if you have any questions about the paper, as they will probably know nothing since they actually didn’t do the research.

  24. Slurpy says:

    @9. Laurent Wada
    Really? I thought $14k was exorbitantly high – certainly *I* can’t afford to be a first author like that.

  25. Helical Investor says:

    Kind of makes you long for the good old days when all it took to get published was accept Elena Ceaușescu as a coauthor.

  26. pgwu says:

    The data could also be sold to virtual biotechs which then repackage as novel products to big pharmas. In an essence, they are all mercs, monetizing everything along the way.

  27. Hap says:

    It would also present a problem if you’re a Chinese student interested in doing science (where do you learn how to be a scientist if the big labs where you might want to work and which are actually being funded aren’t actually doing the work?) or if you’re a domestic or foreign company or school looking to hire students or professors from such a system (how do you know if they know what their publications are claiming they know?)
    It would seem to hose almost everyone entangled with such a system, or at least to set up incentives for the most corrupt to succeed. I don’t think that will work out well in the long run.
    As a side note, do such companies exist in the US, and if they do, how many are there?

  28. Thirunelvely says:

    I am not surprised. Its all about (wrong) incentives: you want recognition through high impact papers, need tenure, consulting agreements, and grants that only count papers on high impact journals? Well you got to pay for it! PERFECT CAPITALIST MECHANISM! (anybody remember sub-prime loans by major banks? Another perfect capitalist tool?)
    So what is Science and Nature going to do? Send special emissaries to check the labs where the research was done, who did it and the original notebook entries? Many of the big name academics with 20-30 researchers in their labs probably do not know this information as well. These are going to be interesting times for grating organizations, journals and scientific researchers! We need to rethink our own incentives and culture of how we communicate and recognize our research.

  29. Tyrosine says:

    Google for “term papers for sale” and see how many US and UK sites come up. Let’s not be too quick to point the finger.

  30. baki says:

    Lots of outrage in the comments here but to be honest, in many cases senior faculty or senior researchers are only very marginally involved in the work that their postdocs/students are doing. To a first approximation, the deal is “I pay your salary, you produce papers”. Doesn’t this essentially amount to “purchasing” papers?
    I’m not defending this, but it happens, and it seems a little arbitrary that, once the person doing the writing is not physically seated in (some dark corner) of your lab, and especially if said person is in China, it suddenly becomes unethical..
    Just saying 😉

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