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The Ethics of Authorship: Is Ghostwriting Plagiarism?

A reader inquires about the ethics of a university president who publishes ghostwritten scholarly work.

February 23, 2015

I have come out of my hiatus from this Sounding Board blog to respond to an anonymous question I received (and apologizes for how long it has taken). The questions is:

Is it academic dishonesty or plagiarism if a college president has ghost writers author first person chapters or entire papers to academic books or journals? It seems highly unethical and dishonest but there is very little out [there] that clearly articulates when a president should and should not byline their work and papers.”

Some Context for Thinking About Plagiarism and Ghost Writing

Let’s begin with the easier stuff: defining ghostwriter/ghostwriting and plagiarism. In both cases the material is the original creation of someone other than the publicly named author. The ethical and even legal distinctions come down primarily to issues of rights and permissions—and the circumstances under which these rights and permissions are granted, or not—and the question of reliance, or trust.

Plagiarism is theft or co-optation of original work (authorship, a status connected to intellectual property) without permission or attribution by an individual; ghostwriting is production of original work (authorship) for transfer of exclusive use by, and ownership of, another by mutual consent and, usually, remuneration; this word is specifically chosen to indicate a financial relationship, not a tit-for-tat relationship (more about that later). Ghostwriting is an exchange relationship, or transaction, sometimes a “work for hire,” whereas plagiarism is a one-way, anonymous act.

Ghostwriting, as a transaction, is common in commercial, or trade, publishing, and also common in politics; many textbooks (which fall under the category of commercial activities) also are partly or wholly ghostwritten (we used to call these “developed” books when I worked in educational publishing). I once earned my living as a ghost or contract writer; I was paid to write for others.

What about attribution?  In ghostwriting, that is often part of the negotiated transaction terms, and may be related to the nature of the content itself and the nature of the for-hire relationship (whether this is a single contracted transaction or part of one’s job description in a writing job). In a large project such as a trade book, there can be an agreement for no attribution; for acknowledgment for assistance; for something close to full acknowledgment of the role on the cover (such as when you see a “with” byline under the author’s name). Levels of attribution depend on such variables as named author generosity and writer reputation, but also on conventions or norms related to content and audience alike. It gave me great satisfaction to, for example, research and write an important speech for a government agency head that absolutely captured that person and their objectives, and “sounded” like them when they delivered it. But they did not say, “this speech was written by Jane Robbins.” Nor was there a need to, and not simply because I was paid to do it. It is the nature of the content itself: We don’t believe or expect that every politician, executive, celebrity, or other busy non-writer writes his own speech, biography, or commercial treatise. That is, we are not relying on the fact of original authorship in this case, but rather that it fairly represents the named author (e.g., the politician, executive, whoever), who is delivering it or who has affixed his or her name to it. We do, however, expect that the content has been reviewed and approved, and built through a relational process of construction between the named author and the paid writer. That is, we do expect that it has not been plagiarized by the individual named author acting alone.

It becomes more difficult when we are relying on the fact of authorship—where that has important consequences. So we now come to the question of scholarly works and other products of research where there is a presumption of originality with the named author (one of the defining characteristics of scholarship), and for which the original thought itself is the source of value. Here, we do expect the named author to actually be the author. So while the named author might not have plagiarized—might have paid someone to generate the material or even, as in medical publishing, received compensation to be the named author or agreed to have research written by professional ghostwriters in the employ of a pharmaceutical company—in scholarly publishing our reliance on original authorship makes this unethical and undermines trust in the scholarly record and the system of recognition and rewards on which the scholarly community has long been based. If an author is not really the original author, that system is rendered meaningless. This goes for the common practice of adding names to articles for back-scratching, political, advancement, citation, and other interests. Issues like these have over recent decades become part of a debate about what is often called “publication ethics,” which now also includes the category of self-plagiarism (repeatedly publishing as new one’s own previously published material), and publishers of research have moved to put rules as well as methods for scrutinizing authorship in place in efforts to restore trust in the content. Concern over publication ethics is growing, and has spread from the traditional fields of medicine and some science disciplines to the social sciences and other professions.

Anecdotal stories of professors lifting the work of their graduate students and co-opting it as their own abound. This is plagiarism. But what if a student or assistant is being paid (say, their stipend) to do research of a scholarly nature for that professor (in the case at issue here, for that president)?  Here is where the original question moves beyond codes, conventions, and rules to the more difficult question: a question of personal ethics, and virtue: the question of leadership and credit where credit is due.

Leadership and Credit where Credit is due

The particular question posed had to do with university presidents, so that adds another dimension to the issue beyond its normal considerations of commercial versus academic. I would say that, because of the relation in which the ghostwriting occurs, acknowledgment is incumbent, almost mandatory. The reality is that people in positions of leadership or authority have other people doing things for them all the time: in the best of worlds, it is those people who make the leader successful, who make him or her look good. Public recognition and credit for the ideas and contributions of those who support the leader are a major part of the reward structure of organizations and an important intangible sources of “compensation” and job satisfaction; for outside ghost writers, it contributes to their reputation and ability to gain additional work.

So in answer to the original question: If entire scholarly articles, books, and chapters are written by paid ghosts, and this is not disclosed in print, then this is a breach of publication ethics that undermines reliance on the record and misrepresents the president’s scholarly output. If the writing or research assistance was partial and was a work-for-hire, perhaps by a research assistant, then that is a contribution that merits but may not require acknowledgment if it was not substantial. In both cases, however, the president sets a poor model of ethical behavior to the institution and the public he or she serves. When a president publishes not only a scholarly work on whose authorship we rely but also one for general or trade consumption, therefore, it is an exercise of leadership and personal integrity to give full acknowledgement of the help received, according to its magnitude. This might range from co-authorship to acknowledgment.


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