Many university students under pressure are turning to the Internet for help - not for research, but to find someone to write their reports for them.
So common is this phenomenon that a new research paper from Wuhan University in Hubei province estimated that university students spend up to half a billion yuan ($73 million) a year to have other people write their essays.
A 26-year-old, part-time ghostwriter in Beijing says he is not surprised about the growing industry, from which he had drawn "decent profits" for half a decade.
"Generally, we're paid by the number of pages. Every Chinese page costs about 130 to 160 yuan, and those in English cost around 200 yuan a page," he said, adding that his clients have included students from prestigious Peking University, Tsinghua University and other top universities in China.
The ghostwriter would not disclose his name.
As a quick writer, he can complete a paper for a bachelor's degree in two days, which would take others more than a week.
The current price of a 20,000-character paper for a master's degree costs about 4,500 yuan, said Li Jing, a Beijinger who established a ghostwriting online studio after six years of study and work in the United States.
The paper can be completed within a month, she told China Daily yesterday.
Many overseas elites like Li who return to China make their living through ghostwriting and their target clients include students, professors and workers from all walks of life.
Shen Yang, a professor at Wuhan University who released the latest research paper, said the number of papers college students and teachers are expected to write, lack of an effective thesis supervision system and the convenience brought by the Internet drive the booming ghostwriting market.
The paper shows there were more than 1.1 million full-time teachers in universities and colleges across the country in 2007 and they had to publish more than half a million theses within two years in nearly 1,800 important periodicals to keep their positions.
"Under such enormous pressure, professors have to find ways to survive in their careers, and students strive to find ways to graduate," Shen said.
"The Internet brings these needy people a shortcut. With one click, thousands of ghostwriting services will pop up," he said.
The paper says the ghostwriting of academic papers has become an industry with an average cost of a paper reaching nearly 650 yuan.
According to the paper's statistics, three-quarters of the ghostwriting clients get access to the service through the Internet.
"It is just everywhere on the Internet. It seems that you are seduced to find a ghostwriter when you can't finish the article on your own," Liu He, a 25-year-old doctoral candidate at Peking Union Medical College Hospital, said yesterday.
"We should remove the quantity requirement for the professor's thesis and encourage them to do creative papers. What's more, a comprehensive thesis supervision system is urgent for the current academic environment," Shen said.
According to a recent study by the China Association for Science and Technology, more than half of science and technology researchers believe that their peers engage in "disgraceful behavior", including plagiarism and ghostwriting.
Zhou Zude, president of Wuhan University of Technology and a candidate for Chinese Academy of Sciences Academician, China's highest academic honor, was alleged to have copied the work of a fellow scientist in a thesis submitted to a national conference this August.
In June this year, it was found that more than half of a thesis by 29-year-old Zhou Senfeng, who became the youngest mayor of a county-level city in Yicheng of Hubei, matched another thesis published two years earlier.