A small thread on Twitter (now deleted) pointed me to the website YMGrad.com, “Your Gateway to Study Abroad“. The site promises to help students be admitted to graduate schools at top universities worldwide.
One of the services offered on the site is paid authorship on a paper – without the students needing to do any research.
That sounds a lot like a paper mill to me.
YMGrad [archived link] is founded by Yash Mittra, hence the “YM”. His LinkedIn page lists him as a MSc student at USC and the founder and CEO of several companies based in the US and India. He also runs a popular YouTube Channel with almost 30K subscribers.
In his YouTube videos he shows how to study for the GRE (a test required for admission to many graduate schools in the US and Canada), how to improve English skills, how to write a Statement of Purpose, and how to do well in a Visa interview. Recently, his videos also give updates on the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on student visa and on studying abroad. These videos are free and well-liked.
The YMGrad website provides several paid services (archived link) to help students even more. Services include GRE coaching sessions, Visa interview counseling, and application reviews. So far so good.
But some of the services offered by YMGrad appear to go a bit too far. Graduate school applications require students to write a personal statement and to ask their mentors and professors to write letters of recommendation. Cheating – by paying others to write those letters for you – is not allowed.
Let’s explore a couple of the offered services that appear to be against the rules of graduate applications.
Statement of Purpose writing
Most USA universities require an essay for their college or graduate school applications. In the Statement of Purpose (SOP), the essay required for graduate schools, the student will write about their personal interests, their undergraduate career and activities, and motivation to go to the new school. It’s a personal letter, and although you can obviously ask a friend or parent to help you with it, you are supposed to write it yourself.
YMGrad, however, will happily write the SoP for you.
In the Statement of Purpose / Essay Drafting section [archived] YM states: “I have personally drafted statements for people who received admits from universities like CMU, UIUC, ASU, Columbia, UCLA, USC, NEU, UofT, UBC, GaTech, and many more.“
You just have to fill out some basic inputs, and YMGrad will do the rest. Don’t bother writing anything yourself, though. They prefer to write the SoP themselves: “Please Note: We prefer drafting from scratch, but we will take your existing draft in consideration (if you already have one ready).“
Letter of Recommendation Drafting
A Letter of Recommendation is typically written by a professor or other teacher or mentor who knows you personally and can recommend you to a new job or school. There are occasions where e.g. postdocs are asked to write a draft, so that the professor will save some time, and can just edit it and sign it. But it is obviously not meant to be a letter that the student or postdoc completely writes themself and then pretend it came from their professor.
YMGrad however, can write an LOR for you [archived]: “Looking to really stand out? I have the secrets, and now you can have me personally write exceptional LORs for you. Book your slot now!” There is nothing stated on whether YMGrad will also add a falsified professor-y signature, but I would not be surprised if they did.
Research Paper Writing services
Need a research paper to make your graduate school application really stand out? YMGrad can write one for you.
Under “Research Paper Drafting and Publishing” [archived], YMGrad writes: “Our main aim is to help you stand out by crafting a paper that is unique, research-intensive, and is likely to be published in a high impact factor Scopus-indexed journal.”
This is the part that I was particularly curious about, since it really appears to be offering students paid authorship on papers about research they did not perform themselves. YMGrad has 7 easy steps for you:
- “You tell us your area of research.
- We then connect with our partner Ph.D./MS students who are researching in the area.
- You select the topic of the options we present to you.
- Next, we draft the paper with the partner. You will not need to do any research here. We will handle it for you.
- Finally, you get the paper.
- Next, we present to you the options for publishing based on the journals accepting submissions.
- Finally, you select one and we guide you in publishing“
Short on money? No problem. You can split the costs with other students who also would love to be an author on a paper they did not write themselves. In fact, YMGrad writes: “Note: Multiple students can come in together for a research paper. We can add multiple names on the same paper and the students can split the charges for the service. Please note that a 10% charge will be added per co-author (excluding the first author).“
This really sounds like a paper mill to me. You need a paper? Pay YMGrad, and they will make you an author on a paper that you never worked on.
This is against all basic rules of academic authorship, where all authors need to have worked on the research.
I wrote to YMGrad asking them about the Research Paper writing service. Their response was:
“I would like to ensure you that the purpose of the service is not to jeopardise the accepted practice of the scientific journals. We have immense respect for the community and I believe the description of the service page may have mislead into believing the papers we are working on are fake. “
“The purpose of the service is to encourage students (with little or no research experience) to get into the field of research. To do the same, we connect our clients to actual students in the academia well-versed with the field of research. These students then help our clients by giving them a taste of how research papers are built and published. To achieve this, the MS/PhD student helps these students with the research project.”
“These are usually review papers which involve little to no research, but helps get the students started by getting them an actual research project experience. This is also the part due to which we mentioned they will have to do no research on their own.”
“Finally, after the students finish with the paper, we come in and help with the publishing part of the process.”
They also stated that they had modified the text on their website to make this more clear. Comparing the different versions, I can only spot that the sentences “You will not need to do any research here. We will handle it for you.” have been removed.
Even with the explanation, this still sounds very wrong to me. Suppose there is an “actual” student writing a review paper and suddenly three other names are added to the authorship line up. Does the actual student get paid for this by YMGrad?
Also, students rarely write papers by themselves. They usually work in labs with other researchers and professors. Wouldn’t the senior author of the review paper be surprised and suspicious if suddenly three persons from different countries or universities are added to the paper?
It is hard to imagine an ethical or realistic scenario for these paid authorships.
College and Graduate school admission fraud
It might be good to point out here that there have been several recent fraudulent admission schemes.
Last year, a large US college admission scheme came to light, with William Rick Singer as the central person. He helped high school students, often from rich and famous families, cheat on the admission tests or helped them build fake sports credentials.
In April 2020, a former admissions officer at the University of Southern California in LA (the same school that the YMGrad founder is attending) pleaded guilty to a graduate school admission scheme. David Chong received large payments from foreign students to help get into USC graduate programs. Chong admitted to preparing false documents including fraudulent recommendations.
That sounds pretty similar to some of the services that YMGrad offers.
Please let me know in the comments below if you think that the services offered by YMGrad to write SoP, LoR, and research papers are OK – or not.