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Can college admission officers detect the difference between substance and the illusion of substance?

Asking that question is not designed to impugn my colleagues on the college side of the desk. It is more a recognition that application readers today at selective/rejective colleges and universities are put in the untenable position of having to make subtle distinctions and snap judgments sorting a growing pool of applicants, all in a period of time that would be shocking and depressing to students if they realized how little time is spent reading an application compared with how much time is spent preparing one.

It’s even more the latest iteration in a philosophical debate that dates back at least as far as Plato. How can any of us distinguish between reality and illusion? Is what we think we perceive actually real or merely shadows on the wall of the cave we inhabit?

From a college admissions perspective, it is a recognition of how easy it is for savvy students, parents and counselors or consultants to game the system. Can admission officers detect the difference between the genuine essay and the one written with assistance of an overinvolved adult, or even ChatGPT? Can they smell the difference between the nonprofit established because of genuine passion for impacting the world and the one established because of genuine passion for impacting one’s chances of getting into a “name” college? Can they sort out community service that is authentic compared with that required by a school for graduation compared with that which is court-mandated?

I have been thinking about those questions ever since I saw Daniel Golden’s recent ProPublica article on the rise of opportunities for high school students, or more specifically college applicants, to get published for their research. Golden and his co-author, Kunal Purohit, describe the push to research and publish while in high school as “The Newest Admissions Ploy,” but the article leads me to conclude, or at least suspect, that the research opportunities bear resemblance to Rick Singer’s “side door,” with the obvious difference that they don’t appear illegal or criminal. But are they ethical? That might be a different answer.

The ProPublica investigation described firms like Scholar Launch, Lumiere Education, and Athena Education as “a new industry … extracting fees from well-heeled families to enable their teenage children to conduct and publish research that colleges may regard as a credential.” For a fee ranging from $2,500 to $10,000, these and other services match clients with “publication specialists,” often doctoral students looking for an easy side hustle. They work with clients for three to four months, assisting them in producing publishable research.

So what’s wrong with that? The practice raises several ethical questions.

The first is whether the research is legitimate. Do we need research such as that described in the article, an ode to Chick-fil-A’s chicken sandwich and the company’s marketing strategy? Are journal articles written by high school students on topics like human willingness to relocate to Mars and “Social Media: Blessing or Curse” valid contributions to the intellectual realm? Is the existence of these journals and these services a blessing or a curse?

I actually believe strongly in the value of original research for students with an intellectual passion, and I have always loved places like the College of Wooster or Princeton University that incorporate a major research-based thesis as foundational with their curricula. At my school I have been instrumental in establishing a program for a small group of students to conduct independent research. Our program does not give either a grade or credit for the research, because we want the message to be that our capstone projects should be about learning for the joy of learning rather than for enhancing one’s résumé for college (we recognize that exemplary research can have admission benefits, but that shouldn’t be the primary motivation).

The key word is “independent.” Paying a firm to have a publication specialist assist a student in conceiving and carrying out a research project makes it hard to determine whose work a project might be. All of us who work with students face a tightrope walk to deftly navigate the treacherous terrain between assisting or advising a student and turning their work into our adult conception of what that work could look like. When you are being paid a sizable fee to help a student with their “research,” the temptation to do more than advise becomes acute.

The second issue involves publication. The ProPublica article identifies what it describes as a “byzantine world of online publications,” including the Scholarly Review, the Journal of Student Research, the Journal of Research High School and the International Journal of High School Research. Some of those may have incestuous relationships with the research services. The Scholarly Review just happens to have been founded, and funded, by Scholar Launch.

That is not the only conflict of interest. The ProPublica investigation found instances where members of a journal’s editorial board are also mentoring students whose work ends up being published in the same journal. There is no way that would be acceptable in the actual world of published research.

The other publication piece that is curious, and perhaps troubling, is the practice known as “preprints” found in some of these journals. Preprints aren’t traditional journal articles that are peer-reviewed or even vetted by editorial boards. They are pay-for-play, or more accurately, pay-for-publish. They are the academic equivalent of vanity publishing. Do we need vanity research?

The other ethical issue, of course, involves equity. These pay-for-play publishing schemes benefit those who can afford to pay. This is another example where we in the admissions profession need to examine our practices from an equity and fairness lens to make sure that we are not privileging those who are already privileged and savvy enough to game the system. That includes colleges ensuring that application readers can tell the difference between substance and the illusion of substance.

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