I have been toying with the idea of becoming an independent researcher, raising money by working very long/hard hours for a year, then taking a year off for solely for research. This would be partially for financial reasons (Post-Doc salaries are really awful), but also because I think my research would benefit if I could pour my undivided attention into algorithm design for a year.

The biggest problem with this plan however is that in order to publish my research after a year or so of intensive work, I would need to be affiliated with an institute - even journals like arXiv require this.

This got me thinking - what actually is an institute? From the little bit of research into it I have done, it seems to be no different to a standard company, although most have charitable status and are tax-exempt or non-profit.

If other people would also like to work for-profit for a year, then for-research for a year (or at some other frequency), then a virtual institute to publish under would be quite a useful thing. In fact I'm surprised such institutes don't already exist: we have scam journals and scam conferences - why no scam institutes?

Of course if I did set up an institute to publish under it wouldn't be a scam, (there are numerous benefits I can see a virtual institute providing for members), but the idea of a on-paper-only institute is applicable to both.

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    Your question is based on a false premise. You don't have to be affiliated with an institute in order to publish - no reputable journal requires this. See academia.stackexchange.com/questions/3010/…. And arXiv (which is not a journal) doesn't require affiliation either; you just may have to be endorsed. So this is why there are no scam institutes: there's no need. – Nate Eldredge Jun 8 '16 at 23:29
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    ronininstitute.org – Stephan Branczyk Jun 9 '16 at 4:51
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    Right. Frankly, for most people who complain about having difficulty getting endorsed, the problem isn't really "I don't know anyone and the community is so elitist", it's "My work is junk and really doesn't belong on arXiv but I won't listen to anyone who tells me so". For a young PhD student, getting endorsed should be as simple as writing a two-line email to your PhD advisor, or anyone else in the field you know: "I'm trying to upload to arXiv but since I am no longer at the institute I need an endorsement. Could you please endorse me? Thanks." – Nate Eldredge Jun 9 '16 at 13:29
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    For that matter, most PhD students in an arXiv-able field will already have posted preprints during their studies, and thus can post for the rest of their lives without further hassle. If your studies are over but you still have access to your institutional email address, that may also entitle you to automatic endorsement. – Nate Eldredge Jun 9 '16 at 13:32
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    my research would benefit if I could pour my undivided attention into [it] then don't waste a minute creating an institute. – Cape Code Jun 9 '16 at 16:25

I know a number of independent or semi-independent researchers who have set up a small company for themselves to affiliate with (e.g., the whimsically named Turing Ate My Hamster, Ltd.), for various different reasons.

This is pretty easy to do and, I believe, achieves everything that you are looking for from a virtual institute. It also has the advantage of not being fake in any way---just very small.


If your research is valuable then you should be able to find an institute to affiliate with. If there is a lack of interest in for temporary or part time affiliations in your field (that would work with your research needs) then perhaps there is a demand for institutes more welcoming to non traditional relationships.

There is no reason why such an institute would need to be a scam as you refer to it. Find others in your situation and form an institute together. Depending on the research you are able to produce, perhaps you can attract funding at some point.

  • Sorry the scam paragraph is probably a bit misleading. What I was trying to say was if anyone could set up their own institute, i'm sure I would have seen a scammer try it by now. If one did actually set up the institutional equivalent of arXiv for example, then it would not be a scam at all. I love the idea of finding other like-minded researchers in my field to come together and setup an institute. There are tech companies with similar origin stories. I will have to think more about how one could do this... – Wetlab Walter Jun 8 '16 at 23:00
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    "If your research is valuable then you should be able to find an institute to affiliate with." Why? It might very happen that his research is valuable but there are too few positions in his field, or there are even more valuable research areas, etc. Obviously I would say this is the most common situation. – Dilworth Jun 9 '16 at 0:13
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    @Dilworth I meant valuable in comparison to other research happening in the field. I agree that some fields have so much high quality research already happening it is hard to fund every new idea that shows merit. – Lars Gustafson Jun 9 '16 at 1:10
  • You might want to correct your phrasing then. – Dilworth Jun 9 '16 at 18:04

Creating such institute might hit some problems about local laws that do not accept/foresaw those things or maybe create some obstacles for possible members. Many countries feature laws that would prevent that such institute could ever be created because in order to allowing operation and/or recognizion as an educational and/or research institute, they demand things that only makes sense to physically existing ones. You can't circumvent that, because trying to do so would imply that your institute would be operating illegally, which would be a very bad idea.

In face of that problem, you might need to research what would be the best country in which the institute would be based to ensure the minimal possibility of such problems.

Further, many courses such as chemistry, medicine or geology needs quite specilized labs or practice lessons that will demand that at least some of the institution courses will need to have physical instalations.

But, afterall, I can assure you that virtual institutes do exist, and there is a lot of them. In Brazil, there is a lot of universities out there that provides many virtual graduation courses and many strictu sensu specialist virtual courses. Some institutes features only virtual courses at all (so you might call'em "virtual institutes"). However, there is no virtual master or PhD courses here yet, and I actually searched for that (dunno the reason though).

In fact, anedoctally, I was thinking about joining a strictu sensu virtual specialist course, but in the end I opted for a traditional one. My girlfriend, however, just started her virtual strictu sensu specialist course. In such courses, lessons are video streamed, homeworks are delivered via e-mail or via upload somewhere, students and teachers talk through course-specific forums, e-mails or some form of chat. With that, tools like Moodle and Skype are omnipresent. Everything is over the internet.

Those online courses features recognition from the government as educational institutes and the diplomas that they would eventually emit for their students is recognized by the government and by other universities as valid. In fact such online graduation and specialist courses are popping-up at such fast pace, that in a few years, it is likely that they will dominate over traditional ones and be the default style. For those courses that can't have 100% virtual lessons, they would become partly/mostly virtual, with only the parts that can't be virtual being not virtual.

Virtual courses have many advantages, such as the students being able to watch the lessons in their preferred times freeing them up to be able to work and earn his/her money through the day. This also free up the teachers to be able to make their best schedules. Also, since lessons are normally video streamed over the internet and NOT live, students may pause or rewatch them just as they would do in a YouTube video, which makes they more confortable to watch (you could take lessons in your bed watching them on your smartphone). This also eliminates those problems that may make some students lose lessons by not being able to go to the class in a particular day due to some particular problem or by losing part of the lesson due to arriving late because there was a traffic jam, or the problem of losing or not understanding an important part of the professsor's talk (in presential lessons this might be a killer, but in video lessons this is no problem since the student can just rewatch that part of the video). Further, since this is not a live video, if the teacher makes some mistake or get confused somewhere, he/she will just rerecord that part instead of confusing his/her students. Another advantage is that people living in areas where there is no traditional course in their area of interest (as is the case of many smaller towns) do not need to move to somewhere else in order to eventually take his/her lessons. Also, by being online, institutions can cut a lot of costs, which also lowers the cost of education for the students. This also allows for larger classes, lowering the needed rate of teachers over students in order to operate, and allowing more students to take courses. There are some disadvantages though, as student-teacher and student-student relations are severely degraded and some students aren't productive taking lessons that way, which makes them go back to traditional presential courses. Also, many types of reasearch becames harder or slower to do. And of course, the student needs the access of a reliable internet connection at least during part of the day.

Anyway, even institutions that features fully-online courses or mostly-online surely exist, they still must feature a physical location (even if that happens to be just an office somewhere) as a requisite to be recognized by the government (at least in Brazil, maybe some other countries do not even need that). Further, in order to be allowed by the government to operate and be recognized as courses, they must feature presential exams, even if everything else is online. Many courses also features semestral or annual student meetings.

So, virtual institutes surely exist, and they are very active doing real research and providing real lessons. All over the internet.

What about scammy institutes? I can assure that they also surely exists, sadly. Many of those virtual institutes are honest, but some aren't (to be fair, some traditional ones aren't too), and many of those institutes are just façades for making easy money by selling out undeserved diplomas. They features very low quality lessons and very stupid exams, if those aren't simply faked altogether. The government are always watching for those and frequently closes those scammy/dubious courses/institutes, but many of them are able to live very long without being caught by government course quality measurements (it is not very hard to trick out the government). With that, many online courses are still seen negatively by many people, to the point that some people simply refuse to hire people who took online courses, which in turn also makes the life of the honest online institutes and students harder.

Further, there is several grades of "scammyness". There are institutes that do dubious/scammy practices only in some courses or some disciplines or just with some students. For example, they might feature honest courses, but might also secretly/illegally sell diplomas and fake scholar records for students that pay enough cash for that without ever watching a single lesson (of course, both parts will never admit that in public, so you will never see that service being advertised). Also, some courses might selectively be too easy or too hard depending on the student (for example, those who pays regularly get easy exams, those who delay or default payments get hard exams). Some may secretly pass a failed exam and fake the grade if the student bribe them for that. There are many other ways where institutes might be in the category "not fully honest but also not fully scammy either". However, those are old practices from already existing unethical traditional institutes that just showed up their already seen face and vigour when they went to the virtual space.

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    This answer seems to be answering a different question. Namely, this answer seems to be talking about on-line colleges, with coursework, exams, grades, ... not research institutes. – paul garrett Jun 9 '16 at 15:03
  • @paulgarrett Online research institutes needs to be financed somehow. Normally they do that by providing online courses, which makes a lot of sense since research are almost always seen together with teaching (but the other way around is possibly not). In the end both the online research institute and the online courseworks institute end up being the same one. – Victor Stafusa Jun 9 '16 at 15:06
  • Essentially all of the on-line coursework places I've ever seen are not using revenue from on-line coursework to fund research. Sure, in principle this is possible, but I don't see it in the U.S. at all. Further, how would the questioner manage to market his/her new institute to students? How to get accreditation? How to manage all this? A research institute is one thing... with funding difficulties, yes, ... but creation of an on-line college and all that entails, just to try to fund research, seems quite inefficient and not even so plausible, I fear. – paul garrett Jun 9 '16 at 15:10
  • @paulgarrett Well, for a reasearch institute to get accreditation, I guess that it needs to publish important papers in important journals, but this takes a lot of time to give any fruit, which means that either the institute is heavily funded by some large company in exchange for patents or something like that (and in this case, there is no need for being virtual at all), or that the institute will need to at least partly finance itself by offering courses. Barring something very scammy, since the former don't seem to be one of the objectives of the OP, so the later seems to be unavoidable. – Victor Stafusa Jun 9 '16 at 15:19
  • No, in the U.S. colleges do not get teaching accreditation for research. It's essentially unrelated. – paul garrett Jun 9 '16 at 16:25

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