by Daniel Golden, ProPublica, and Kunal Purohit
On a family trip to the Jersey Shore in the summer of 2021, Sophia’s go-to meal was the Chick-fil-A chicken sandwich. The buns were toasty, the chicken was crispy and the fries didn’t spill from the bag.
Sophia was entering her sophomore year in prep school, but her parents were already thinking ahead to college. They paid to enroll her in an online service called Scholar Launch, whose programs start at $3,500. Scholar Launch, which started in 2019, connects high school students with mentors who work with them on research papers that can be published and enhance their college applications.
Publication “is the objective,” Scholar Launch says on its website. “We have numerous publication partners, all are peer-reviewed journals.”
The prospect appealed to Sophia. “Nowadays, having a publication is kind of a given” for college applicants, she said. “If you don’t have one, you’re going to have to make it up in some other aspect of your application.”
Sophia said she chose marketing as her field because it “sounded interesting.” She attended weekly group sessions with a Scholar Launch mentor, a marketing executive who also taught at an Ivy League business school, before working one-on-one with a teaching assistant. Assigned to analyze a company’s marketing strategy, she selected Chick-fil-A.
Sophia’s paper offered a glowing assessment. She credited Chick-fil-A as “responsible for the popularity of the chicken sandwich,” praised its fare as healthier than fast-food burgers, saluted its “humorous yet honest” slogan (a cow saying, “Eat mor chikin”) and admired its “family-friendly” attitude and “traditional beliefs,” exemplified by closing its restaurants on Sundays. Parts of her paper sounded like a customer endorsement (and she acknowledged to ProPublica that her marketing analysis could’ve been stronger). Neither too dry nor too juicy, the company’s signature sandwich “is the perfect blend to have me wanting more after every bite,” she wrote. “Just from the taste,” Chick-fil-A “is destined for success.”
Her heartfelt tribute to the chicken chain appeared on the website of a new online journal for high school research, the Scholarly Review. The publication touts its “thorough process of review” by “highly accomplished professors and academics,” but it also displays what are known as preprints. They aren’t publications “in the traditional sense” and aren’t vetted by Scholarly Review’s editorial board, according to Roger Worthington, its chair.
That preprint platform is where Sophia’s paper appeared. Now a 17-year-old high school junior, she said she wasn’t aware of the difference between the journal and the preprint platform, and she didn’t think the less prestigious placement would hurt her college chances: “It’s just important that there’s a link out there.”
Sophia is preparing to apply to college at a time when the criteria for gaining entry are in flux. The Supreme Court appears poised to curtail race-conscious affirmative action. Grade inflation makes it harder to pick students based on GPA, since so many have A averages. And the SAT and ACT tests, long criticized for favoring white and wealthy students, have fallen out of fashion at many universities, which have made them optional or dropped them entirely.
As these differentiators recede and the number of applications soars, colleges are grappling with the latest pay-to-play maneuver that gives the rich an edge: published research papers. A new industry is extracting fees from well-heeled families to enable their teenage children to conduct and publish research that colleges may regard as a credential.
At least 20 online research programs for high schoolers have sprung up in the U.S. and abroad in recent years, along with a bevy of journals that publish the work. This growth was aided by the pandemic, which normalized online education and stymied opportunities for in-person research.
The consequence has been a profusion of published research papers by high school students. According to four months of reporting by ProPublica, online student journals now present work that ranges from serious inquiry by young scholars to dubious papers whose main qualification seems to be that the authors’ parents are willing to pay, directly or indirectly, to have them published. Usually, the projects are closely directed by graduate students or professors who are paid to be mentors. College admissions staff, besieged by applicants proffering links to their studies, verify that a paper was published but are often at a loss to evaluate its quality.
Moreover, ProPublica’s reporting shows that purveyors of online research sometimes engage in questionable practices. Some services portray affiliated publications as independent journals. Others have inflated their academic mentors’ credentials or offered freebies to college admissions consultants who could provide referrals. When asked about these practices by ProPublica, several services responded by reversing course on them.
The business of churning out high school research is a “fast-growing epidemic,” said one longtime Ivy League admissions officer, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak for his university. “The number of outfits doing that has trebled or quadrupled in the past few years.
“There are very few actual prodigies. There are a lot of precocious kids who are working hard and doing advanced things. A sophomore in high school is not going to be doing high-level neuroscience. And yet, a very high number of kids are including this” in their applications.
The programs serve at least 12,000 students a year worldwide. Most families are paying between $2,500 and $10,000 to improve their odds of getting into U.S. universities that accept as few as 1 in every 25 applicants. Some of the biggest services are located in China, and international students abound even in several U.S.-based programs.
The services pair high schoolers with academic mentors for 10-15 weeks to produce research papers. Online services typically shape the topic, direction and duration of the project, and urge students to complete and publish a paper regardless of how fruitful the exploration has been. “Publication specialists” then help steer the papers into a dizzying array of online journals and preprint platforms. Almost any high school paper can find an outlet. Alongside hardcore science papers are ones with titles like “The Willingness of Humans to Settle on Mars, and the Factors that Affect it,” “Social Media; Blessing Or Curse” and “Is Bitcoin A Blessing Or A Curse?”
“You’re teaching students to be cynical about research,” said Kent Anderson, past president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing and former publishing director of the New England Journal of Medicine. “That’s the really corrosive part. ‘I can hire someone to do it. We can get it done, we can get it published, what’s the big deal?’”
The research services brag about how many of their alumni get into premier U.S. universities. Lumiere Education, for example, has served 1,500 students, half of them international, since its inception in the summer of 2020. In a survey of its alumni, it found that 9.8% who applied to an Ivy League university or to Stanford last year were accepted. That’s considerably higher than the overall acceptance rates at those schools.
Such statistics don’t prove that the students were admitted because of their research. Still, research can influence admissions decisions. At Harvard, “evidence of substantial scholarship” can elevate an applicant, according to a university filing in a lawsuit challenging its use of affirmative action in admissions. The University of Pennsylvania’s admissions dean, Whitney Soule, boasted last year that nearly one-third of accepted students “engaged in academic research” in high school, including some who “co-authored publications included in leading journals.” A Penn spokesperson declined to identify the journals. Yale, Columbia and Brown, among others, encourage applicants to send research.
One admissions dean acknowledged that conferring an advantage on those who submit published papers benefits affluent applicants. “Research is one of these activities that we’re very aware they’re not offered equitably,” Stuart Schmill of MIT said. Nevertheless, MIT invites applicants to submit research and inquires whether and where it was published.
Admissions officers often lack the time and expertise to evaluate this research. The first reader of each application typically takes 10 minutes or less to go through it, which means noting the existence of the published paper without actually reading it. If the applicant is on the cusp, a second staffer more versed in the subject area may read their file. The first reader “is very young and in almost all cases majored in humanities or social sciences,” said Jon Reider, a former admissions officer at Stanford. “They can’t tell if a paper in the sciences means anything or is new at all.”
As a result, admissions staff may rely on outside opinions. Schmill said that MIT pays more attention to the mentor’s recommendation than the actual research. Academic mentors, even when paid, “do a pretty good job being honest and objective,” he said. The longtime Ivy League admissions officer was more skeptical, likening the mentors to expert witnesses in a trial.
Brown admissions dean Logan Powell described faculty as “invaluable partners” in reviewing research. But many professors would rather not be bothered. “Our faculty don’t want to spend all their time reading research projects from 17- and 18-year-olds,” the veteran Ivy League admissions officer said.
Also complicating the admissions office’s ability to assess the papers is staffers’ unfamiliarity with the byzantine world of online publications favored by the research services. Several have confusingly similar names: the Journal of Student Research, the Journal of Research High School, the International Journal of High School Research. Selective outlets like the Journal of Student Research and the Scholarly Review also post preprints, making it hard to determine what, if any, standards a manuscript was held to.
Some also hide ties to research services. Scholarly Review doesn’t tell readers that it’s founded and funded by Scholar Launch. The lack of transparency was “not a conscious decision,” Scholar Launch co-founder Joel Butterly said. “Our intent is to keep it as separate as possible from Scholar Launch.”
The companies are intertwined in at least two respects. Worthington, who chairs the Scholarly Review’s editorial board, also works as a mentor for Scholar Launch and InGenius Prep, a college admissions counseling service co-founded by Butterly. Three of the seven articles in the Scholarly Review’s inaugural issue were written by students who Worthington advised, possibly enhancing their college prospects.
“Editors selecting papers they were involved in is a no-no,” said Anderson, the former New England Journal of Medicine publishing director.
Worthington told ProPublica that he had recused himself from discussing those manuscripts. Then Scholar Launch changed its policy. “For future issues,” Worthington said in a subsequent email, “the company will disclose mentoring arrangements in advance to make doubly sure that nobody will be reviewing work by a former student.” Worthington also said, after ProPublica raised questions, that Scholarly Review would make it “more obvious” that the editorial board is “not responsible” for articles on its preprint platform. (During ProPublica’s reporting process, Sophia’s Chick-fil-A paper was removed from the site.) The platform, which is managed by Scholar Launch and InGenius Prep, has been given a separate section on the Scholarly Review website, and further changes are likely, he said.
Online research services are an offshoot of the booming college-admissions-advising industry. They draw many of their students from the same affluent population that hires private counselors. Many families that are already paying thousands or tens of thousands of dollars for advice on essay writing and extracurricular activities pay thousands more for research help. Scholar Launch charges $3,500 for “junior” research programs and between $4,500 and $8,800 for advanced research, according to its website.
Polygence, one of the largest online high school research programs in the U.S., cultivates college counselors. The service, which was founded in 2019 and worked with more than 2,000 students last year, has developed relationships with counselors whose clients receive a discount for using Polygence.
Polygence proclaimed April to be Independent Educational Consultants Appreciation Month. It planned to raffle off prizes including “an all-expenses paid roundtrip to a college campus tour of your choice” — it suggested the University of Hawaii — and “2 free pro bono Polygence research projects.”
Such perks appear to brush up against ethics codes of two college counseling associations, which prohibit members from accepting substantial compensation for student referrals. Asked about these rules, Polygence co-founder Jin Chow said the event celebrates all counselors, “regardless of whether or not they have partnered with us or sent us students.” Polygence then dropped the tour prize and added two more free research projects.
Then there’s the question of credentials. Lumiere Education’s website has routinely identified mentors as Ph.D.s even when they don’t have a doctorate and described itself as “founded by Oxford and Harvard PhDs,” even though its founders, Dhruva Bhat and Stephen Turban, are pursuing doctorates. It’s “shorthand,” Turban said. “We’re not trying to deceive anyone.” After ProPublica questioned the practice, Lumiere changed mentors’ credentials on its website from “PhD” to “PhD student.”
Paid “mentors,” who are frequently doctoral students, play key roles in the process of generating papers by high schoolers. The job is “one of the most lucrative side hustles for graduate students,” as one Columbia Ph.D. candidate in political science put it. Another Ph.D. candidate, who mentored for two services, said that one paid her $200 an hour, and the other paid $150 — far more than the $25 an hour she earned as a teaching assistant in an Ivy League graduate course.
In some instances, the mentors seem to function as something more than advisers. Since high schoolers generally don’t arrive with a research topic, the mentor helps them choose it, and then may pitch in with writing, editing and scientific analysis.
A former consultant at Athena Education, a service in India, recalled that a client thanked her for his admission to a world-famous university. Admissions interviewers had praised his paper, which she had heavily revised. The university “was tricked,” the consultant said, adding that other students who were academically stronger went to second-tier universities.
The Cornell Undergraduate Economic Review, which accepts about 10% of submissions, published its first-ever paper by a high school student in 2021. Its editor-in-chief was impressed that the author, a Lumiere client in the Boston area, had used advanced econometrics to demonstrate that a reduced federal income tax subsidy for electric vehicles had caused sales to plummet.
But another editor, Andres Aradillas Fernandez, said he wondered whether the high-level work “was not at least partially” attributable to the mentor, a Ph.D. candidate in economics at an Ivy League university. He also felt uneasy that access to services like Lumiere is largely based on wealth. After Aradillas Fernandez became editor-in-chief last year and Lumiere clients submitted weaker papers, he notified Lumiere that the journal would no longer publish high school research.
The Boston-area Lumiere client declined comment. Turban, Lumiere’s co-founder, said the paper was “100 percent” the student’s work. The mentor said he showed the high schooler which mathematical formulas to use, but the student was “very motivated” and did the calculations himself. “I have to spoon feed him a bit on what to read and sometimes how to do it,” the mentor said.
The oldest online research mentorship program for high schoolers, Pioneer Academics, founded in 2012, has maintained relatively rigorous standards. It accepted 37% of its 4,765 applicants last year, and 13% of its students received full scholarships based on need. Pioneer “never promises academic journal publication,” according to its website.
“The push for publication leads young scholars astray,” Pioneer co-founder Matthew Jaskol said. “The message is that looking like a champion is more important than training to be a great athlete.”
Oberlin College gives credits to students for passing Pioneer courses. The college’s annual reviews have found that research done for Pioneer “far exceeded” what would be expected to earn credit, said Michael Parkin, an associate dean of arts and sciences at Oberlin and a former Pioneer mentor, who oversees the collaboration. Pioneer pays Oberlin a small fee for each nonscholarship student given credit.
At Pioneer and other services, the most fulfilling projects are often impelled by the student’s curiosity, and gaining an edge in college admissions is a byproduct rather than the raison d’etre. Alaa Aboelkhair, the daughter of a government worker in Egypt, was fascinated as a child by how the stars constantly change their position in the sky. Googling in 2021, before her senior year of high school, she came across Lumiere, which gave her a scholarship. “The fact that we only know 5% of the universe drove me to study more,” she said. “That is my passion.”
At the suggestion of her Lumiere mentor, Christian Ferko, Alaa examined whether hypothetical particles known as axions could be detected by converting them into light. Lumiere was paying Ferko for weekly sessions, but he talked with Alaa several times a week. He emailed some textbooks to her and she found other sources on her own, working late into the night to finish her paper.
Since she chose not to submit her ACT score, the paper and Ferko’s recommendation were vital to her college applications. In March 2022, a Princeton admissions officer called Ferko to ask about Alaa. Ferko compared her to a first-year graduate student and said she showed the potential to make new discoveries. “My impression is this is something colleges do when they’re right on the fence of whether to admit the student,” Ferko said. “I did my best to advocate for her, without overstating.”
Princeton admitted only 3.3% of international applicants to the class of 2026, including Alaa. She said she received a full scholarship. (“Optional submissions are one factor among many in our holistic review process,” Princeton spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss said.)
A short walk from India’s first Trump Tower, in an upscale neighborhood known for luxury homes and gourmet restaurants, is the Mumbai office of Athena Education, a startup that promises to help students “join the ranks of Ivy League admits.” An attendant in a white uniform waits at a standing desk to greet visitors in a lounge lined with paintings and featuring a coffee bar and a glass facade with a stunning view of the downtown skyline. “We all strive to get things done while sipping Italian coffee brewed in-house,” a recent Athena ad read.
Co-founded in 2014 by two Princeton graduates, Athena has served more than 2,000 students. At least 80 clients have been admitted to elite universities, and 87% have gotten into top-50 U.S. colleges, according to its website. One client said that Athena charges more than a million rupees, or $12,200 a year, six times India’s annual per capita income. Athena declined comment for this story.
Around 2020, Athena expanded its research program and started emphasizing publication. Athena and similar services in South Korea and China cater to international students whose odds of getting accepted at a U.S. college are even longer than those American students face. MIT, for instance, accepted 1.4% of international applicants last year, compared with 5% of domestic applicants.
A former consultant said Athena told her that its students were the “creme de la creme.” Instead, she estimated, 7 out of 10 needed “hand-holding.”
For publication, Athena students have a readily available option: Questioz, an online outlet founded by an Athena client and run by high schoolers. Former Editor-in-Chief Eesha Garimella said that a mentor at Athena “guides us on the paper editing and publication process.” Garimella said Questioz publishes 75%-80% of submissions.
Athena students also place their work in the Houston-based Journal of Student Research. Founded in 2012 to publish undergraduate and graduate work, in 2017 the journal began running high school papers, which now make up 85% of its articles, co-founders Mir Alikhan and Daharsh Rana wrote in an email.
Last June, a special edition of the journal presented research by 19 Athena students. They tested noise-reduction algorithms and used computer vision to compare the stances of professional and amateur golfers. A survey of Hong Kong residents concluded that people who grew up near the ocean are more likely to value its conservation. Athena’s then-head of research was listed as a co-author on 10 of the projects.
Publication in JSR was “pretty simple,” said former Athena student Anjani Nanda, who surveyed 103 people about their awareness of female genital mutilation and found that they were poorly informed. “I never got any edits or suggested changes from their side.”
As Nanda’s experience suggests, virtual journals dedicated to high school research tend to be less choosy than traditional publications. They reflect a larger shift in academic publishing. Print journals typically accept a small percentage of submissions and depend on subscription revenue. Online publications tend to be free for the reader but charge a fee to the author — incentivizing the publications to boost revenue by accepting many articles.
The Journal of Student Research exemplifies this turnabout. It describes itself as peer-reviewed, the gold standard of traditional academic publishing. It relies on more than 90 reviewers at colleges across the U.S., and the typical review takes 12-24 weeks, according to its website.
In reality, it may not be so stringent. Four of eight reviewers whom ProPublica contacted said the journal has never asked them to evaluate a manuscript. (Some academics agreed to review for JSR but forgot over time, Alikhan and Rana said; others specialize in fields where the journal has received few submissions.)
And while authors pay an “article processing charge” of $50 at submission and $200 at acceptance, for an extra $300 they can expedite “fast-track” review in four to five weeks. One Athena client who fast-tracked his manuscript so that it could be published in time for his college application said JSR accepted it without changes. He was admitted to a top-10 U.S. university. “I think it was important,” said the student. “I didn’t have much leadership in school so [I] needed other ways to get better extracurriculars.”
In “The Ultimate Guide to the Journal of Student Research,” a Lumiere “publication strategy associate” described JSR as a “safety” option that accepts 65% of submissions from Lumiere clients. “In our experience, we have noticed that JSR nearly never gives edits, and students always just advance straight to being accepted,” the Lumiere associate wrote.
Alikhan and Rana defended the journal’s standards. They said that many papers, which are submitted with the guidance of top mentors, hardly need editing: “Honestly, it is not the journal’s fault if their advisors working closely with students produce outstanding manuscripts.”
The journals are deluged with submissions. Founded in 2019, the International Journal of High School Research has expanded from four to six issues a year and may add more, said executive producer Fehmi Damkaci. “There is a greater demand than we envisioned,” he said, adding that the journal has become more selective.
As the pandemic closed labs and restricted fieldwork, forcing students to collect data and conduct interviews online, the Journal of Student Research “received an increased volume of submissions,” Alikhan and Rana said. Polygence complained that several students who wanted to cite publications in their college applications hadn’t heard back from JSR for months. The papers were eventually published.
Preprint platforms don’t even bother with peer review. The usual justification for preprints is that they quickly disseminate vital research, such as new information about vaccines or medical treatments. High school projects are rarely so urgent. Still, Polygence started a preprint platform last fall. “The idea is for students to showcase their work and have them be judged by the scientific/peer/college community for their merits,” co-founder Janos Perczel wrote to ProPublica.
The Journal of Student Research hosts preprints by clients of Scholar Launch and two other services. One preprint only listed the author’s first name, Nitya. Leaving out the last name is a small mistake, but one that hints at the frenzy to publish quickly.
Online research programs could end up victimized by their own success. College admissions consultant Jillian Nataupsky estimated that one-third of her clients undertake virtual research. “For students trying to find ways to differentiate themselves in this crazy competitive landscape, this has risen as a really great option,” she said. But “it’s becoming a little more commonplace. I can see it becoming completely over-inundated in the next few years.”
Then the search can begin for the next leg up in college admissions.
Image: Scott Graham/Unsplash