A semilegal industry traffics in ghostwritten Ph.D. dissertations for 2,000 euros a pop, a cross-border investigation has found. Aleksandar Manasiev reports from Macedonia and Semir Mujkić in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Igor wasn't hard to get in touch with. His services as one of Macedonia's most prolific ghostwriters of postgraduate theses were advertised all over the internet and in newspapers.
You pay. He does the work. You get the degree.
"It's a legitimate business," he said on the phone as we haggled over the cost of a master's thesis - about 4 euros ($4.50) a page, depending on the complexity of the subject matter - on intensive medical care. He reckoned he could produce a 100-page work in about a month.
"If it were a crime, I wouldn't dare to have done it for 10 years," Igor said. "I am a family man."
Igor, who claims to have helped dozens of people who now work in big companies and even government get their master's degrees and doctorates, is just one of hundreds of thesis sellers on the fringes of academia in Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, two of the poorest and most corrupt former Yugoslav states. Though the illicit trade in postgraduate credentials is big business across the Balkans, experts say Macedonia and Bosnia outdo other countries when it comes to turning a blind eye to such ill-gotten degrees.
A cross-border investigation has revealed a highly organized and efficient system for churning out dodgy dissertations by taking advantage of legal loopholes, lack of enforcement by the state and institutions, complicity by some academics, and rising demand from students who are unwilling - or unable - to do the work themselves.
It's easy to see why demand is high when a ghostwritten master's thesis costs less than a designer handbag and you can buy a Ph.D. dissertation for the price of a used car.
Iva, a ghostwriter who adverstises online, offered to write a master's thesis in marketing for a mere 150 euros. "You'll have it in just two, maybe three weeks at the latest," she said on the phone. "We often get orders for economic papers, so we know our job. We'll make sure you pass, and the paper won't be plagiarized. It will have its basis. The research will be original. In preparing the paper, we include professionals from the area of research."
"I'm talking about professors," she said, declining to give any names.
Ilija Aceski, a philosophy professor at the Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, said he was fully aware of an organized system for selling master's and doctoral theses. And he wasn't at all surprised that nobody is trying to stop it.
"Faculties in Macedonia are simply not interested in this problem," Aceski said. "What is important for them is the money from applicants. The higher-education institutions have turned into businesses that operate on a profit basis."
As universities focus more on their bottom lines and less on academic standards, unscrupulous students find it easier to slip through, Aceski said. "The system is corrupt," Aceski said. "It is made like that so individuals can earn really good money. Even some of the professors are constantly in committees where they evaluate the candidates for masters or doctorates. The fees are good and they are getting money without any effort ... Everyone is sharing a piece of the cake."
It normally takes six months or more to research and write a Master of Science thesis, academics say - but some advertisers promise to deliver work in as little as two weeks to a month. Given the sheer prevalence of advertisers offering to sell academic papers, it is easy to conclude that demand for advanced degrees - by whatever means - is on the rise. The statistics seem to bear this out.
According to data from Macedonia's State Statistical Office, 2,440 people obtained M.S. and specialist degrees in 2015, up 11.2 percent from the year before. About 70 percent of master's theses were in the social sciences. Last year, 246 people received science doctorates, up 19.4 percent from 2014.
Bosnia's best buys
Many internet ads that tout cut-rate theses for sale in Bosnia-Herzegovina guarantee original writing that will pass any plagiarism test. Dozens of advertisements, most of them on the internet, offer master's theses or similar work, such as high school final essays, bachelor theses or even doctoral dissertations. "We appreciate your time," the ads tell customers, and maybe even ad: "quality guaranteed."
Responses to queries often come within minutes. The conversation starts with the basics: which faculty the work is for, the price, the deadline, the topic and other specifics.
Acting as students interested in buying finished master's theses, we made contact with several people advertising such services, which resulted in chats about the specifics on a made-up topic for a degree in construction engineering.
One ghostwriter claimed to have a Ph.D., work as a lecturer and have several assistants. "As for the work, I have to tell you that all available literature is used and sources quoted," the person wrote. "There are software systems that check whether it is a plagiary or not," the ghostwriter added. "As for my experience, we did work for serious faculties and universities and we have only positive yearslong experience."
With a complex educational system, lack of transparency and a high score on the corruption index, authorities have few recourses to combat cheating as Bosnia-Herzegovina is one of the rare countries in Europe that does not have a national Education Ministry.
Mario Hibert, a philosophy professor at the University of Sarajevo, wrote a guide on plagiarism. He said the university had not provided anti-plagiarism software.
"As far as I know, the university does not have a software for discovering plagiarism," Hibert said. "Everything is up to professors."
Hibert said he was not using any software of his own: "Google is enough. As soon as I suspect something, I can google a couple of sentences, mark them and check very fast. And that is the way I usually discover plagiarism."
The professor added that responsibility for preventing plagiarism falls on the mentors as much as it does the students. There is a commission for every master's or Ph.D. thesis, and at least three members read each work.
A promised interview with officials to discuss anti-plagiarism efforts at the university, the biggest in Bosnia, never happened.
Back in Macedonia, lawyers and sources at the Education Ministry said buying and selling ghostwritten theses was technically not a crime, which makes it easy for students to learn enough of the content of the work to pass it off to professors as their own.
Ognen Jovanovski, a lawyer from Skopje, said the legal loophole meant that universities could only sanction students whose work was plagiarized rather than ghostwritten - which is usually not the case.
(The investigation was supported by The Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Thomson Reuters Foundation.)