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Cash for skills: A Japanese academic reveals her experience publishing with anonymous help

A skills marketplace website selling support to research activities is seen in this partially modified image.

TOKYO -- It has emerged that some researchers are selling their skills online to willing buyers in academic fields. An instructor at a private university in east Japan's Kanto region recently spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun about her experience using one such service to buy a researcher's help to complete a published academic paper.

    The instructor, in her 40s, said she paid about 80,000 yen (some $730) to receive help in data analysis and writing for a paper to appear in an international scholarly journal. Although there are no rules banning the hiring of certain skills, the woman said she does worry whether her actions violated research ethics.

    She joined the university's medicine department in 2018. While she has extensive experience working in the medical field, the woman had little experience when it came to writing academic papers. She turned to a professor in her department for help in researching and writing them. But she was refused, and told, "I don't get money from you, so don't think I'll be teaching you."

    She was called in weekly by the professor, and pushed multiple times with statements and questions including, "Why don't you do research?" and, "A person like that has no need to be a teacher at a university." Scholars who don't get their research published in academic journals do not get their efforts recognized.

    She felt that the professor "wasn't there to teach people," and while she was stressing over not putting out her results, she saw a TV report about the skills market. When she checked the website, she found that numerous researchers were looking for customers and willing to accept work to compile academic papers, among other services.

    In spring 2020, the woman hired a seller referring to themselves as a "company researcher" to help her with the submission of a paper to an English-language international journal. They provided support including in correcting the writing, structuring it, as well as aiding in data analysis and the creation of graphs. The work was peer-reviewed three times by other researchers, and she received support also in the responses to her peers.

    Both parties' names and affiliations remained unknown to each other, and through the course of their total of 10 exchanges the woman paid around 80,000 yen in all. She paid from her own finances, and her paper was published in an international journal during 2020. She explained that she decided to use the service amid pressure from her professor to publish work, and reflected, "I was grateful. I thought the price was low if it meant I could get published."

    She did not tell her professor that she purchased a researcher's skills. She expressed feelings of guilt: "I solved it with money. It was a back-door way of doing things, but there was no other way. I can't discount that it could be seen as me having hired a ghostwriter to produce it."

    Although she has a sense that she completed the paper herself, the person who sold her the guidance also had a great deal of involvement in the paper, and she still feels an uneasiness that a person who should have been credited as an author on the paper was hidden, a research ethics violation referred to as "ghost authorship."

    "I wanted to include the person who guided me as one of the paper's authors, but I don't even know their name. I want to do research in the correct way, and therefore I want an environment established where one can openly say they received help," she said.

    Satoshi Tanaka, a professor at Kyoto Pharmaceutical University with extensive knowledge of research ethics, told the Mainichi Shimbun, "In cases where both parties remain anonymous (in receiving guidance and other instances), there is a very high chance of reckless research activity taking place. If the person giving the guidance alters the data to make it look more impressive, it is difficult for the buyer to call it out. It could also bring about illicit research."

    Behind the trend of young researchers and students using research skill services appears also to be that they can't get the adequate educational training from universities. Tanaka offered his analysis of the situation: "Researchers who are fundamentally not suited as teachers are put into the position of instructors at universities, and an appropriate educational system cannot be put in place. The deterioration in the quality of educational staff's teaching is a distortion that has arisen out of the current research environment where cultivating the next generation doesn't lead to a professor's own benefit in their evaluation."

    (Japanese original by Shimpei Torii, Science & Environment News Department)

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