When I started university back in September 2014, my parents agreed to give me a monthly allowance of 600 yuan ($90) for living expenses, a sum that barely covered my meals for the month. Given my financial situation, I hoped to find a part-time job and make a little pocket money, preferably one that wouldn’t interfere with my studies. So, I started looking online for academic ghostwriting jobs that I could do remotely from my dormitory in eastern China’s Shandong province.
It’s astonishingly easy to find information about ghostwriting on the Chinese internet. A cursory search led me to join two ghostwriting chat groups, both run by middlemen. After entering my name, contact information, academic background, and areas of expertise, I could start picking ghostwriting jobs suited to my skill set from a list published by the middleman in charge of the group. I knew what I was doing was unethical, but I also knew I didn’t have enough cash to get through the month.
The jobs that the middleman posted mostly involved writing course papers, undergraduate and graduate theses, or even articles slated for publication in academic journals. They came with a word count and the requirement that the finished product be able to pass an anti-plagiarism check. Each of my fellow ghostwriters had their unique skill sets, and payment was generally about 30 to 40 yuan per 1,000 characters. Of course, the middleman charged clients far more, often 100 to 200 yuan per 1,000 characters.
At first, I wasn’t really sure what I was doing; the jobs I took were often too long and too difficult. The busy season for ghostwriters falls in the last two months of the semester, when I needed to churn out one paper every three days for my clients. I found myself spending all my free time in front of a computer screen. On weekends, I ate just one meal a day.
Fortunately, the requirements for this kind of work aren’t too high: The majority of my clients either took vocational programs or attended the country’s lowest-ranked universities. Most of the time, I just needed to find a few papers related to the topic provided, merge them, and do a little bit of rewriting here and there. Although I’m a student in the Chinese language and literature department, I took on writing jobs outside of my area of expertise, such as accounting and management.
By the end of the first semester of my sophomore year, I had enough clients coming to me directly that I felt comfortable withdrawing from the chat groups altogether. Cutting out the middleman meant that I could make between 80 and 120 yuan per 1,000 characters, three times as much as before. This, in turn, allowed me to take fewer jobs.
By interacting directly with my clients, I gradually learned more about them. Many turned to ghostwriters for help because they didn’t understand the topic they were being asked to write about. Others were too busy studying or interning to write a thesis, while still more believed that they simply couldn’t write an essay outline.
Cutting out the middleman also came with a host of new trust issues. Middlemen charge clients a down payment and collect the remaining fee after the paper has been submitted. This guarantees the ghostwriter a cut.
When I struck out on my own, however, I found that the lack of familiarity between clients and myself led to mutual feelings of mistrust. This is a common problem within the ghostwriting industry. Online, complaints of poorly written essays and wasted money abound.
To build trust, I waived the initial deposit, gave clients my contact information, and sent them screenshots of my past work. Once the first draft was finished, I would send it — along with a plagiarism check report — to my client, who would look it over and ensure it met their standards before paying. I withheld 10 percent of the total fee until the paper passed the class.
One client had particularly exacting standards and demanded that I send him an updated draft after completing every 1,000 characters. Only when he was satisfied with their quality would he allow me to move on to the next section. I must have revised the paper 10 times before it met his standards. His expectations were high, but he always transferred my fee to me as soon as a section was finished.
Other clients, however, vanished into the ether as soon as they received my draft, never responding to messages or paying me. After I sent a draft to one client, he said he had his nose to the grindstone preparing for his graduation practicum and spent his free time passing out flyers to earn enough money to live on. He flat out told me he didn’t have the money to pay me, and ended up unfriending me on the messaging app we used to communicate. I never heard from him again.
Another client waited until I sent him my completed work before abruptly announcing that he had already found someone else to do it — a blatant attempt to avoid having to pay. These experiences left me feeling frustrated and helpless. About 30 percent of my clients came up with various excuses to avoid having to pay me, and nobody ever gave me my final 10 percent installment.
After being repeatedly cheated, I became jaded. Not only that, but after many months of work, I was beginning to feel physically unwell and less able to study. My friends had said all along that I was breaking the rules, another issue I’d spent a lot of time struggling with. As a result, I decided to give up ghostwriting at the end of my sophomore year.
My “sabbatical” lasted until the second semester of my junior year, when — in order to make a little money for living expenses and reduce the burden I was placing on my family — I took up ghostwriting again. Tired of being tricked, this time I joined a relatively large ghostwriter chat group managed by a middleman who paid pretty well: about 60 to 100 yuan per 1,000 characters. I am still working for them today.
I know the ghostwriting industry exists in a gray area and is a form of academic fraud that runs counter to scholarly ethics. Over the past two years, I’ve read reports of professors hiring ghostwriters to pen articles for publication, as well as tales of study abroad consultants hiring them to write various materials for students applying to overseas schools. Legal regulation of ghostwriting in China is essentially nonexistent; wherever there’s demand for it, there’s money to be made.
I fully understand social criticism of the industry, and I plan to give it up as soon as I graduate and find a steady job. While ghostwriting is something I’ve been able to profit from personally, it is my hope that China’s academic morals eventually evolve in a healthier direction.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: The Image Bank/VCG)