Some weeks ago a company contacted me via email. In summary, they offer to pay you if you include a co-author. They also need you to sign an agreement with your University and them. So, from one side, it seems kind of legal (since in the agreement they state "sponsorship"), but from the other side, these practices, I am afraid could lead to unexpected retractions, due to the likely unethical side of the business.

Is this kind of service illegal or unethical?

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    I have no experience of this, but reading this reminds me of the services that allow students to buy an essay to 'look at'. It is possible to use the service for legitimate purposes, which means it can't really be shut down. On the other hand, there is a very clear opportunity to use it for illegitimate ends. Oxford Uni responded by banning anyone there from working for such companies. I think that gives you an idea of how this would be viewed. – Jessica B Dec 29 '17 at 9:04
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    Pretty clear from an ethics point of view. Don’t do it. – Jon Custer Dec 29 '17 at 9:30
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    Definitely feels and sounds pretty sleazy. Though, it seems like a good answer would elaborate on any issues it might have. – Nat Dec 29 '17 at 10:16
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It sounds not ethical to me; if it is legal or not you should ask a lawyer;

Consider the following point: This is definitely at least borderline to scientific misconduct (depending if the co-author actually contributed anything at all), and either you will have to publish in a journal with bad reputation or risk retraction if you publish in any journal caring about it's reputation.

And if your PHD gets delayed (and possibly stalls as a consequence of resulting bad relationships with your team/university), anything which you possibly got from it will turn out not to be worth it.

(As a small side remark: Academic life often forces you to walk the line between ethical and not ethical very carefully. But don't participate in anything like this on your own will)

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If the object of this is just to buy somebody a co-author credit without doing the work, that is obviously unethical, but for me that would be one of the least worrisome scenarios...

By academic convention, all co-authors must agree to the content of a paper published under their names. If you make a binding commitment to co-authoring with Bob Corporate without agreeing on the parameters for what is to be published, that puts you in a very precarious position.

Suppose Bob wants the conclusion to say "Our findings show that smoking is beneficial for children's health, and should be made mandatory", and refuses to sign off on any text that doesn't contain that statement. Does the contract then require you to refund their money if you (and the reviewers) can't agree with Bob on what to publish?

But in my experience from a previous career in research, it's not so much the blatant stuff that's a problem. It's the subtle pressures: you have two options for data analysis, both defensible, but Bob wants to use the one which (by coincidence) happens to make your sponsor look better.

The pressure doesn't even need to come from the sponsor. In my case, I never felt any direct pressure from our funders, but I felt considerable pressure from within my institution to produce results that were favourable to our sponsor. When somebody is paying you money, it's only natural to want them to feel like they got their money's worth, especially if you're hoping for repeat business. Nobody needs to say anything out loud, they don't even need to acknowledge to themselves that they're biasing the work. Human beings are fantastically good at finding ways to rationalise choices that happen to support their own interests.

As Sascha's commented, purity is difficult to attain in academia; it's hard to work without money, and money always comes with strings. But at the very least, you should know in advance what the company is hoping to get in return for their money, and think about whether you have sufficient leverage to protect the integrity of whatever's published with your name on it.

If you do go through with it, make sure that the contract covers how disagreements about content will be handled, and make sure that things like data analysis methods are agreed on in advance of data collection (if relevant to your work).

Also, make sure everything is agreed in writing...

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