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Saturday, 21 February 2015

Confessions of Academic Ghost Authors | SAGE Open

Confessions of Academic Ghost Authors

The Iranian Experience



Academic plagiarism exists in all academic spheres, but
contextual factors determine the level, intensity, and forms of it. Over
the last few years, the phenomenon of “Ghost Authorship” has become
widespread in Iran, and concerns have been expressed regarding this
issue, not only by academicians but also by officials. In this study,
143 students participated in a two-step interview study in which they
spoke about their experiences on either seeing a ghost author doing the
research of someone else in exchange of money or they themselves being a
ghost author. In all, 29 students said that they had done it once or
so. The in-depth interviews with these 29 students showed how the
plagiarism industry works in Iran, who the customers are, how they find
each other, and so on.


Plagiarism within university settings is a widespread
phenomenon that manifests itself in a variety of forms and includes
transgressions that can be classified as instances of academic
dishonesty (i.e., student cheating) as well as instances of research
misconduct. Although the bulk of research into plagiarism as academic
misconduct has been carried out in English-speaking nations (e.g.,
Australia, the United States), studies have now been emerging,
documenting this transgression in many countries across the world. One
country that has received some attention in recent years is Iran, a
nation that is experiencing significant academic and scientific growth.
Iran is an Islamic republic with a population of about 76
million. When the Islamic Revolution happened in 1979, there were
approximately 150,000 university students in Iran. By 2008, there were
3.5 million university students (Tofighi Darian, 2009). That number now stands at about 4.5 million students (Sedighi, 2014). At the professional level, there are more than 55,000 faculty members with a PhD working at Iranian academic institutes (Sedighi, 2014).
Also, many doctoral-level students will be looking for new teaching and
research positions, plus some of the several thousand students
currently studying outside Iran (Moslemi Naeini, 2013)
who will likely return to Iran. The number of tertiary academic
institutes in Iran was 223 in 1979, but, in 2013, this number has
reached 2,540 (Bolookat, 2014).
With so many young academics in the pipeline and a faltering economic
situation, it is likely that additional academic positions necessary to
meet the needs of the country will not be created. Thus, securing an
academic position already is increasingly competitive and will likely
become even more so in the near future. An additional complication is
that few international students enroll in the Iranian universities. So,
the universities may have to lower their admissions criteria to enroll
more students and survive. But, even with lower academic standards,
students in the humanities will still need to prepare term papers and
write theses. However, if some of these students lack proper academic
skills, how will they be able to complete their assignments? In
addition, one has to wonder how all of those unemployed PhD or MA
graduates will be able to make a living.
In this article, we study what we call the “plagiarism
industry” in Iran. We have interviewed a group of enterprising students
who, at the time of the interviews, were earning a living, or had done
so in the past, by writing other students’ term papers and theses. The
qualitative data obtained have provided us with insights that reveal the
complexities of this plagiarism industry and offer clues about the
causes, effects, and the economic realities that underlie this activity.
But first, we will examine the state of plagiarism in Iran according to
the available literature.

Plagiarism in Iran

Over the past decades, Iran has had such a sharp increase in
science production that it was placed among the 31 countries of the
world that published the so-called “top 1% most cited publications” (Habibzadeh, 2008, p. 171). From 1996 to 2007, Iranian researchers published 8,797 citable medical papers (Scopus®) and ranked 39 in the world, but their H
index (an index that estimates the importance and impact of
contributions by a scientist or a country) was 40, placing Iran in the
69th position. There are many factors contributing to this relatively
low citation rate, including the vicious cycle of poor methodology and
plagiarism (Farrokhi, 2009).
Plagiarism is not something special to Iran or even to our time. But,
as mentioned earlier, the extraordinary demand for having an academic
certificate has convinced many people that they can make a lot of money
by selling academic services. In the most notable example, the late Ali
Kordan, an ally of the Iranian President, was fired from his job as
Minister Interior in 2008 when he was found to have lied about having
received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University (Burke, Tomlinson, & Coope, 2012).
And in 2009, Nature published an article with a peculiar title “Iranian
ministers in plagiarism row,” which was a reaction to a chain of
scandals in which some academic journals found papers by some of the
Iranian authorities were in fact plagiarized and were subsequently
retracted (Butler, 2009).
After that episode, a group of researchers responded to the charges by
pointing out that much of the fraud has been perpetrated by politicians,
and not Iranian full-time academics (Bloch, 2012).
Moreover, in an effort to further combat the perception that Iranian
academics might in some way condone these activities, some of the
Iranian professors and researchers founded the weblog “Professors
Against Plagiarism.”

Research on Plagiarism in Iran

A number of studies have been carried out in Iran in an effort to examine the various parameters of plagiarism. For example, Ojaghi, Keyvanara, Cheshmeh Sohrabi, and Papi (2011)
carried out a qualitative study on faculty members at University of
Esfahan, Iran, in which the authors sought the opinion of study
participants regarding the main causes of plagiarism in Iran’s academic
community. The professors who participated in this research identified
two major variables as important in this respect. Internally, those who
have been raised in families in which ethical conduct is regarded
seriously were said to be less likely to plagiarize. In addition,
participants felt that plagiarism is more likely to occur in a climate
in which such behavior is more common and less likely to be met with
criticism and punishment. With respect to the latter point, it is
interesting to point out that Donald McCabe, one of the most prominent
authorities in academic dishonesty, has consistently found that one of
the strongest predictors of academic dishonesty is the academic
integrity climate of an institution (McCabe, Trevino, & Butterfield, 2001).
That is, based on several studies using thousands of North American
students, these authors conclude that students are more likely to cheat
if they believe that other students engage in this behavior and get away
with it. Finally, Ojaghi et al. also revealed that among their 21
participants, some admitted that the PhD certificates of some current
professors in the Iranian universities are not genuine.
Fealy, Biglari, and Pezeshkirad (2012)
conducted a survey on 225 graduate students in large public university
in Tehran in an effort to determine how these students viewed
plagiarism. They found that most of the students had slightly
unfavorable or neutral attitudes toward plagiarism. They also found a
significant difference between those who attended article-writing
courses and those who did not, in viewing plagiarism unethical. Their
survey showed that only about 40% of their respondents said they do not
plagiarize, which means that the remaining 60% are overtly saying they
resort to plagiarism to prepare their term papers. Similarly, Khamesan and Amiri (2011)
surveyed 400 students from 4 faculties and 30 majors at a different
university and their results revealed that fewer than half of the
students would not resort to plagiarism when they felt the need to do
so, while more than a half of their respondents said that plagiarism is
common in their university. They also found that the number of male
students who said they resorted to plagiarism was significantly higher
in comparison with that of female students. Based on their survey and
other data, they concluded that plagiarism is very common in Iran.
In one study, Amirkhani, Vahdat, and Khezrian (2010)
conducted a survey on 250 students in a public university to see
whether there was any correlation between psychological characteristics
and Internet plagiarism, and reported that extroversion, academic
talent, and emotional stability are among the important factors
preventing students from doing plagiarism on the Internet.

Ghost Writing as Alternative to Plagiarism

Although most students who plagiarize seem to do so by
taking textual material that is already freely available to them via
paper or online sources, a small percentage of them (about 5%) are known
to have confederates produce the work on their behalf or purchase the
work via one of the many online essay writing services or “paper mills”
that have emerged over the years (Scanlon & Neumann, 2002).
In view of the economic realities facing Iran and given the current
academic climate at many Iranian academic institutions, we wanted to
examine the problem of plagiarism from the perspective of those who
offer term paper and essay services or seek such services in Iran. For
this purpose, we carried out informal interviews with a sample of
students ranging from those holding Baccalaureate degrees to those
holding PhD degrees. The purpose of this investigation was to explore
the extent of this particular type of plagiarism in Iran and the
conditions that give rise to this behavior.



A convenience sample consisted of 143 BA, MA, and PhD
students in humanities from a major Iranian University participated in
this research (see Table 1). Age data were not collected.
Table 1.
Number of Respondents by Sex and Level of Education.


All respondents were asked the following two questions
(“Have you ever heard a classmate of yours paid somebody else to do his
or her homework/final paper?” and “Have you ever worked on a project of
somebody else in exchange of money?”). If they answered in the
affirmative, they were then interviewed.


Given the sensitive nature of the topic, we knew from the
beginning that getting students to reveal their true opinions and actual
practices regarding their academic writing would be no easy task. After
all, even after assuring them of the anonymity of their responses,
people are probably not going to be completely open about their
unethical behaviors if they know that their responses are going to be
presented in a paper. Therefore, part of the inclusion criteria for the
interview was based on a subjective determination on the part of the
interviewers (E.S. and S.A.) that the respondents were being honest.
Thus, during a period of 18 months from May 2012 to November 2013, we
interviewed 143 students in different majors of humanities. These majors
included social sciences, communication studies, management, theology,
political relations, psychology, regional studies, and so on. Because of
the sensitivity of the subject, most of the interviews were carried out
during social chats in a friendly atmosphere, so the interviewees, all
of whom were known to the interviewers, were not aware of the purpose of
chats. Only in cases in which there was a mutual trust between
interviewee and interviewer, the participant was informed about the
nature of conversation. Those who reported that they did not write
papers or theses for other students were asked only two questions. But,
those who said that their job was or is to do other people’s academic
work were interviewed in greater depth.

Results and Discussion

In this section, we present a summary of the responses to
each of the questions and use selected participant responses to
illustrate some of the findings.
In response to the question, “Have you ever heard a
classmate of yours paid somebody else to do his or her homework/final
paper?” 117 of 143 participants said “yes.” This figure means that 81%
of participants reported to have witnessed somebody in their academic
circle paying somebody else to do his or her scientific assignment. All
100% of the PhD students, 88% of MA students, and 72% of BA students in
humanities said that they have witnessed a case. Some of the
participants elaborated the instances of such transactions. For example,
a MA-level female, age 25, reported,

I know a former classmate of mine who was divorced
and got money from her ex-husband. She said she does not bother herself
doing these “stupid things.” She said in each semester she employs the
best people to write her an original paper. She said sometimes, just a
smile would be enough.

A female, PhD, age 32, commented, “It is very common. I am
wondering, did you not see many posters offering such services on street
walls?” A 23-year-old female student in a BA program reported,

A friend of mine was in a terrible stress. She
thought she couldn’t write the article our rigorous professor expected.
Therefore she paid a small stipend to a MA student and he wrote the
paper. We then found that this student had many similar papers which
were sold to customers cheaply.

In response to the question, “Have you ever worked on a
project of somebody else in exchange of money?” a total of 29 of the
respondents answered affirmatively, and a majority of them were PhD
students. All these respondents reported to have prepared somebody
else’s assignment at least once (see Table 2).
Table 2.
Number and Percentage of Respondents Who Wrote Assignments for Others in Exchange for Money.
It is noteworthy that only 6 of 76 (8%) of the female
respondents said “yes” to this question, suggesting that females are
less likely to engage in these unethical academic practices, whereas 34%
of male respondents reported to have done so. Also, as noted above, it
seems that those with more education are more likely to engage in this
activity, perhaps because they are expected to have better writing
skills and be more knowledgeable about the subjects that they are asked
to write about. One other factor could be due to the fact that higher
levels of education are by nature associated with higher age status,
which means that the individual has more responsibilities, and most of
these responsibilities need money.
Those who denied writing paper for money offered various
reasons for their reluctance to do so. For example, a 29-year-old PhD
male reported that

though I have had many such offers, I could never
convince myself writing for somebody else. I, like everybody else,
prefer to be the sole owner of my work. If someone cannot write, he or
she can give up and go for some job else.

A 19-year-old female BA student said,

I am very busy and I cannot do my work the way I
like. I have no time to do such thing . . . yes, if somebody offers me a
good payment and I am sure of the ability of myself to do so, I may
consider it.

Another female, age 23, in a BA program said, “I don’t do
it because it is robbery. It is as ugly as that. But people justify it
for themselves.” Similarly, a 19-year-old male BA student did not think
that the act was ethical: “If it becomes a routine, you will simply
witness someone who is stupid becoming a top student of our class just
because he or she is rich and can afford to pay PhD students.” Finally, a
31-year-old female PhD student who felt strongly against writing
assignments for other students said,

Not only I have never done it, I push back every
one who makes me such offers . . . yes, indeed I have had such offers,
but I have never accepted them. Everyone needs money, but at what price?
I think it is better to steal money from the poor and not enter such a
dirty job.

For the 29 students who claimed to have at least one time
done somebody else’s work in exchange of money, we asked them to provide
details about different aspects of this activity, and what follows
represents a summary of these findings.

Rationale for Engaging in Ghost Authorship

The vast majority of the respondents justified their ghost
writing activities by claiming that they were in financial distress or
felt pressure to generate some additional income. The following remarks
by various respondents illustrate this point. A 33-year-old male PhD
student reported,

Well, I am not from the capital and you know that
the capital is a wild city. Without money, I could barely eat. My family
could not afford to secure enough money for me. Therefore I did it five
or six times.

According to a 22-year-old male BA student, “Every human
being has a minimum of needs. I only do it when I am in financial
pressure.” A 25-year-old male MA student remarked,

It goes back to when I had to support my younger
brother. Actually, no one expected me to support him. But, I was the
older brother and I was naturally supposed to do so. It also gave me the
opportunity to live on my own and therefore I helped my family to stay
on their feet after the financial losses they experienced at that time.

Others rationalized their actions in terms of professional
status. For example, a 34-year-old male PhD student argued, “I have
spent my life to become a professional, but I cannot afford to buy a
car. So I have to accept offers to write theses. This is life; don’t be
stupid.” A 28-year-old BA male remarked, “I do this because I need
money. This is very stupid not to accept money. Without money, you are

Who Are the Customers?

We were interested in learning about the characteristics of
those who seek ghost writing services, and we, therefore, asked them to
describe them in some detail. Their responses indicated that a large
proportion of their customers were wealthier students who attended a
nearby private university with several branches in the Tehran area. Of
course, not all the student-customers were from that one university.
Moreover, in some cases, the respondents indicated that some of their
customers were actual professors. Interestingly, several respondents
indicated that they were approached by many more female than male
students. Some customers tended to be governmental managers who felt the
need to further their studies to get to better qualify for a promotion
or to simply ensure that they can maintain their current position. There
was also the suggestion that as an increasing number of Iranians have
advanced degrees, these government managers feel somewhat intimidated by
the prospect of having to work in a system in which many of their
subordinates are better educated than their managers. The following
responses illustrate these trends. A 38-year-old male PhD student

They are mainly from [. . .] University. They are
wealthy. They pay you well and they pay well for everything. But, they
are not just from [. . .] university. There are other customers as well.
Most of them are women who want to write their thesis. There are also
men . . . They are mainly older than ordinary students. I think they
just came here to get a degree and they don’t care for quality.

A 32-year-old female PhD student reported that “they are
from many backgrounds. But because I don’t work professionally, my
customers are mainly from my university and [. . .] University.” Another
female respondent, a 25-year-old MA student, stated the following:

I only occasionally got such offers. Most of them
are from my university but I have also offers from [. . .] University
and other academic institutes. I am more comfortable working with women
because they know me and I know them by nature. The other reason is that
I am a girl and I cannot quarrel with men about money. Given that there
are enough requests coming from women, why should I bother myself
quarreling with men?

Finally, a 33-year-old male PhD student commented,

I only work with [. . .] University students
because I don’t want my friends and colleagues at my university to know
about it. Moreover, their professors are not rigorous as ours. My
experience is that they accept everything the students email them. Most
of my customers are women.

One 32-year-old female PhD student reported that one of her customers was a college professor. She stated,

For example, I know a professor who likes to
publish many academic articles. He pays me well and I write the articles
for him. Sometimes he includes me as author, but at other times, he
lists himself as sole author.

How They Find Each Other

In English-speaking countries, if a student wishes to
purchase a term paper for use in a course, all she or he needs to do is
an Internet search for term papers, academic essays, and theses. A
plethora of sites purport to have stocks of thousands of papers, which
are sorted by topic. Many of these sites also offer custom-written
papers, which students can arrange to order from the privacy of their
own home as long as she or he has an Internet connection and a credit
card. Our current sample of 29 ghost authors revealed a variety of
different ways of promulgating and arranging for these services. For
example, a 32-year-old male PhD student stated,

Both [informal] social network and advertisements
are important. I also have a liaison with corporations which are active
in the industry. They call me and give me the proposal. I will tell them
my price. Then they add 30% and share it with the customers. I like
working for myself, indeed. But it is not possible to find all of the
customers via social networks.

The above arrangements are similar to those described some years ago by Witherspoon (1995) and more recently by Tomar (2012).
This job is illegal, and moreover, academia is a special
place in which plagiarism is harshly criticized. Yet, this business
needs both parties to get to know each other. Therefore, it seems that
only those who are less professional in this business accept jobs from
the same institutes. More professional people find their customers in
other institutes. Examples follow:
One 25-year-old female MA student reports that requests for
papers “. . . are mainly from the people whom I know, but in some cases
I find them through shared friends. Sometimes, students from [. . .]
University come to our faculty and try to find the right person.” Our
research reveals that most of the orders are facilitated by social
network. But, for professionals, advertising institutes are involved.
They overtly advertise in faculties in every university. A 33-year-old
male PhD student stated that “women talk to each other more openly as
compared to men and so, most of them find me through their friends.”
Another 33-year-old male PhD student said that “they come to faculty and
ask for help and the faculty members redirect them to you. Even now I
have occasionally received these proposals.” Finally, a 29 year-old male
BA, said that he

worked with a bunch of people. They give me the
projects and I do it. I have been told not to try to come in direct
contact with customers; otherwise, they will dismiss me. I am contented
with the stipend and there is no reason for raising conflict of interest

Originality and Quality

We tried to explore the degree of originality and the
quality of the ghost-written works. Here, respondents’ answers to our
questions suggest that most of the ghost-written papers they produce are
not very original and not necessarily of good quality. For example, a
32-year-old male PhD student stated the following:

Frankly, I have dozens “Reviews of Literature,”
“Methodology sections,” “Results,” etc. For each customer, I assemble
the texts and it’s done. After 6 months, you get to know professors and
understand how to assemble the thesis in a way that he or she approves
it. I don’t even think that most of them read the thesis thoroughly.
Generally, I write a MA thesis in a single day.

The approach to ghost writing of picking and choosing from a
collection of archived sections of papers was also mentioned by a
34-year-old male PhD student in connection with offering his services to
a university professor:

When I was doing it for my professor, I did it
brilliantly. I expected him to at least include my name as a co-author.
He paid me well but refused to include my name. Therefore, I didn’t
bother myself working hard for the next work. Also, I found that neither
he nor somebody else doesn’t read the articles critically. Therefore, I
still do that whenever I am in need of money. I got same money for less
effort. For others, however, I don’t take much time. I have many texts
on my laptop. This is just a matter of mingling texts and selling them.

One theme that was repeated several times was the apparent
lack of evaluation of students’ works by their professors. For example, a
27-year-old male BA student revealed the following:

At first I was very sensitive about the quality.
Now, I don’t care. Let me give you a wonderful example. You don’t
believe it. Four years ago, when I was a BA student, I entered this job.
I wrote a thesis for a MA student. It had been thoroughly copy-pasted
with slight modifications. The student paid my stipend and invited me to
attend his defense session. Amidst the discussions on quality of his
thesis, I browsed the thesis and with a great horror found I had forgot
to remove the acknowledgment of the previous thesis. I couldn’t believe
that. I immediately came out of the session but in the evening he called
me and said he got a somehow good point.


Collectively, the available evidence, together with the
material generated by the respondents in this informal study, suggests
that the state of academic integrity in Iran is not unlike that of other
Western nations. Copy pasting from online sources seems to be a common
form of plagiarizing from sources, and there is even some indication
that the Iranian authorities are trying to do something about it, though
their actions may actually facilitate the ghost writing by copy pasting
for a select lucky few who have access to a lot of scholarly content.
Consider the following remarks by a 28-year-old male BA student:

Previously, there was a possibility of downloading
full text theses in Persian language. My friends have downloaded so
many of them. Now, the Ministry of Science and Technology does not let
users download them anymore. In fact, they are no longer on the
Internet. Do you know what that means? That means you can simply
copy-paste material and nobody could know it by searching on the
Internet. That’s the reason people come to us and pay us well.

As Witherspoon (1995) and Tomar (2012)
have shown, many North American students at various academic levels
will hire ghost writers to generate their term papers, theses, and
dissertations, and, in spite of the astronomically high cost of tuition
in North American academic institutions, or the dire economic realities
facing Iranians, students in both areas of the world continue to cheat
by paying others to do their academic work for them.


We would like to give our best regards to a very
outstanding professor who helped us greatly with this work but chose not
to be included as an author or be acknowledged publically.

Article Notes

  • Declaration of Conflicting Interests
    The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect
    to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

  • Funding The author(s) received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.
This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (
which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work
without further permission provided the original work is attributed as
specified on the SAGE and Open Access page (

Author Biographies

Ehsan Shahghasemi is PhD Candidate in
Communication at University of Tehran and researcher at Center for Cyber
Policy Studies at the same university. His research focus on cyberspace
and intercultural communicaiton.
Manijeh Akhavan is MA in Communication
from the University of Tehran. She is currently a researcher at Center
for Cyber Policy Studies at University of Tehran.


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Confessions of Academic Ghost Authors | SAGE Open

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