Ghost Authoring: How Professors Steal the Work of Their Students

I know several PhD researchers at prestigious universities who keep getting asked to “co-author” a research paper. Typically a senior academic will approach them with an idea and ask to “collaborate.” By collaborate, they mean that the student will do all of the work and the professor will get half of the credit. Sometimes they say they will edit the final article. You know, check for spelling mistakes and fix grammar. The conversation always ends with the same question: “You’ll put my name on the final paper, won’t you?”

“Ghost authoring”, where academics take the credit for the work of their PhD students, is rife at most universities. Academics leverage their seniority to demand that students credit them in every single article they write, regardless of their actual contribution. A friend of mine, based in a science lab, puts his supervising professor’s name on every single paper he writes. Sometimes, the professor hasn’t even read the article he purports to have ‘co-authored.’ The professor has a reputation as a ‘prolific’ researcher in public media.

Academics are the first to call foul when students plagiarize work, but there is a culture of silence regarding professors plagiarizing their students’ work, or “reverse plagiarism”. The practice of “ghost authoring,” as it is commonly called, is banned in most universities. Yale University, for instance, suggests that: “Under no circumstance should individuals be added as co-authors based on the individual’s stature… for example, heading a laboratory, research program… or department.” Yet, the practice goes largely unregulated and remains prolific.

The close, personal relationship of a PhD student to their PhD supervisor, means that a supervisor can manipulate the student into silence and compliance while dodging regulation. A senior academic in my friend’s faculty once bragged to him: “I love PhD students. Did you know that 30% of my papers were written by students?” This doesn’t sound like someone scared of the university’s anti-authoring policies. This sounds like someone excited to exploit the numerous students churning through the faculty.

Ghost authoring works in most universities much like a pyramid scheme. PhD students put the real work in at the bottom of the pyramid, while academics at the top benefit. Frequently, a senior academic’s name is used on a paper to gain access to a prestigious journal, to curry favour with a particular editor and so on. In other words, academic journals themselves have failed to care more about the actual ideas in a paper, over the name of the author.

The primary benefit to professors of exploiting their students is a boost their “H-Index”. Put simply, the “H-Index” is the ranking system for academics, combining the number of papers written, with how often those papers are cited. The easiest way to have a lot of papers is to get other people to write them for you, thereby boosting your H-Index.

Some professors claim to have written hundreds of papers across their careers. These are usually the worst offenders of “ghost authoring”. Look very carefully at the co-authors of their articles to determine who actually did the work. You will find that most ‘prolific’ professors have a large number of PhD students who have done most of their research. Typically, while their boss receives a pay rise.

Nowadays, academic articles are frequently submitted as multi-authored, with the person who contributed the most as the first author (often the PhD student), and the person who contributed the least as the last author (often the senior researcher). Academic journals suggest that senior academics not be included unless they “significantly” contributed towards the writing. Many have drawn up guidelines or protocols to this effect. All of these guidelines are ignored at most of the universities I have been in contact with, particularly in the faculties of science, medicine and engineering.

Without a real enforcement mechanism, senior academics will continue to exploit the work of their PhD students in ever expanding pyramid schemes.

Universities need to start getting as tough on professors who plagiarize the work of their students. They deserve the same punishment that students get when they plagiarize: expulsion. They deserve to get fired.


NB: Luckily, I have never been subjected to this practice myself. It is typically a less common practice in humanities fields, compared to the sciences.



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