Academic ghostwriting

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According to Ellie Levitt, "Psychiatry chairman faces ghostwriting accusations", The Daily Pennsylvanian 12/2/2010:

Recently discovered e-mails reveal that a document published in 2003 by Psychiatry Department Chairman Dwight Evans may not have been honest work.

Project on Government Oversight — a nonpartisan watchdog organization that unearths corruption and promotes an ethical federal government — posted on its website Monday that Evans and Dean of Research at New York University’s Mt. Sinai School of Medicine Dennis Charney claimed authorship for an editorial they did not write.

Evans, however, has said that POGO’s accusations are not true. […]

An employee of Scientific Therapeutics Information — the marketing firm that helped promote the drug beginning in the early 1990s — is the suspected actual author of the document, POGO claimed. At the end of the editorial, Evans and Charney acknowledge the writer for “editorial support.”

I have no idea whether POGO's allegations in this case are true or not. But I do know that there's a big problem here, which academic institutions haven't (as far as I can see) found a way to face up to.

On one hand, ghostwriting, as sensationally depicted in Ed Dante's "The Shadow Scholar", The Chronicle of Higher Education 11/12/2010, is a serious and probably increasing cause for concern in academia.  On the other hand, it's long been normal and accepted in the wider world for people in positions of authority to "delegate editorial duties" to others.

This cultural disconnection is a problem because students are quite aware of the double standard. Or perhaps we should say, they're aware of (some of) the multiple incompatible standards, since there's a large multi-dimensional space of differing cultural norms in these matters.

In the various posts that I've written on the topic over the past few years ("Unwritten rules and uncreated consciences", 5/4/2006; "Plagiarism and restrictions on delegated agency", 10/1/2008; "'The writer I hired was a plagiarist!'", 7/13/2010), I've observed that there are logical reasons for some of the variation in moral codes:

For students and their teachers, the key question about a text is who wrote it. When students submit essays (or problem-set answers, or anything else) as their own work, the crucial thing is that the work is really and truly their own. If they hired someone else to write it for them, that's even worse than if they copied it from some previously-written document.

For politicians, business leaders, and other celebrities, the key question about a text is who owns it. When they submit as their own work a book, a speech, a column, or whatever, the only requirement is that they haven't violated someone else's property rights by illegitimate copying. Hiring someone to write things for them is not only OK, it's the normal practice.

But we don't generally try to explain or justify these differences to our students. We just tell them that hiring a ghostwriter, like other forms of plagiarism, is a serious offense for which they are likely to be severely punished if caught.

And we also don't discuss among ourselves where the boundaries ought to be. In one of those earlier posts, I discussed the case of a university president whose syndicated column — on the subject where he had established his reputation as a scientist — was for many years researched and written by graduate students hired for the purpose, who were not given any authorship (or other) credit:

A couple of decades ago, X was a graduate student at Y University, a school that regularly appears in U.S. News and World Report's listing of the top 50 American universities, and not at the bottom of the list either. The school's president, Dr. Z, had a nationally syndicated column. It ran under his byline, but X helped pay her way through school by writing it. I don't mean that she edited it, or did research for it, or drafted it. She came up with the ideas, did whatever research was required, and wrote it exactly as it ran. Dr. Z approved it for publication, or at least was given the opportunity to do so, but he never changed anything. (Or so X told me, and I believe her.)

By the norms of American (and I suppose international) business and politics, this was perfectly ethical and expected behavior. By the norms applied to students, it would be grounds for severe punishment.

Which norms should apply to a university president, or a medical-school department chair?

[You can find more discussion of recent medical-ghostwriting in:

Duff Wilson, "Drug Maker Wrote Book Under 2 Doctors' Names, Documents Say", NYT 11/29/2010
Paul Thacker, "Ghostbusters at POGO", POGO Blog 12/1/2010
Carl Elliott, "Playing Doctor", The Atlantic 12/2010

These seem to be cases that straddled a border, where under one way of looking at them, they were normal for the culture of biomedical "thought leaders", while another perspective sees them as serious violations of ethical principles.  This contested character is suggested by the fact that the authors generally deny some of the facts or at least interpretations presented in the media.

I'm more interested in the cases that are far away from the normal borderline: the speeches and editorials written for university presidents by tmembers of their staff, for example. In my opinion, this is a perfectly fine practice from an ethical point of view; but it remains a case where expected behavior for the institution's leader is proscribed and punishable for others in the same institution.]


  1. Amy Reynaldo said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    A friend of mine is a writer for one of those medical ghostwriting companies. The drug company hires the writing agency to generate an editorial or review article. The writers do the legwork of identifying an "author" who will be asked to approve the article and whose name will appear in the byline; I imagine they've got a database of experts in many fields. The writers do the writing, not the author, and they figure out which journal is the most appropriate place to submit the piece (i.e., high chance of acceptance, relevant audience).

    The same doctors who accept honoraria from drug or equipment manufacturers to tout their products probably see no ethical hitches in such writing arrangements.

    It makes me suspicious as a medical editor when a manuscript is beautifully written. Is the author a doctor with a gift for writing, or a doctor whose department has a professional writer on staff?

  2. DonBoy said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    "For politicians, business leaders, and other celebrities, the key question about a text is who owns it."

    At first I misinterpreted this in the modern (yeahyeahrecencyillusion) sense of "owns" as "takes responsibility for", which also makes the sentence true. If the piece reflects the position that the named author wants to take publicly, then it's fine.

    [(myl) It's true that the nominal "author" needs to take responsibility for his or her ghostwritten publications. (Though such people generally have assistants to take care of the vetting process, in my limited experience.) But the main way to get called to account for breaking a rule, in such cases, is if the text actually belongs to someone else in the legal sense, and is used without permission.]

  3. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

    Notwithstanding that firms routinely employ technical writers, speech writers, ad copy writers, and so on without violating any ethical standard, other areas are not so clear cut. Like myl's Dr. Z, a marketing vice president I worked with always put his name on white papers and other analyses he presented to the board that were entirely produced by professionals working for him. The staff maintained a background level of irritation with him for this practice, yet accepted this rip-off as coming with the territory. I think he was ethically wrong.

    In a second matter, a cultural institution I consult with periodically exhibits the work of creative people who have established reputations or careers outside this particular institution. Almost always the exhibitors provide the institution flattering biographical puff pieces describing their accomplishments which the institution publishes intact in program material. I have suggested to those in charge that if the institution's name is on the program, the content should not be someone else's. Their position is that the exhibitor is helping them avoid difficult and redundant research. I think that this expediency is unethical.

    To what extent are my opinions sound or unsound?

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  5. Sili said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 1:31 pm

    Which norms should apply to a university president, or a medical-school department chair?

    The first one. Ghost authors should be properly credited.

    [(myl) That's neither of the two norms I cited. In the world of business, politics, and high-level university administrators, speechwriters and other ghostwriters are often not credited at all — that was certainly the case with Dr. Z. In students' world, ghostwriters are not supposed to exist. It's not OK if you hire someone to write your term paper, and then tell the instructor what you did. That's honest, but not permitted — you'd still fail the course, and probably be referred for some further action.

    It's true that there is a middle ground, where ghostwriters are supposed to be given some credit. Sometimes this is on the front cover or the title page — "(By) X" in large letters, and "with Y" in smaller letters lower down, as here on the title page of Keith Richards' Life:

    And sometimes it's much less prominent, such as this paragraph on p. 271 of Sarah Palin's latest book:

    This "credit" leaves it unclear whether Jessica Gavora's contribution was writing the book (which she presumably did) or just (say) brewing coffee and negotiating copyright clearances.]

  6. John said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    If they're properly credited, then they're not ghostwriters, no?

  7. John Cowan said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    I think that the determinative question for all these behaviors is "Does the substitution corrupt the process of evaluation?" (I'm disregarding the issue of copyright violation, which is orthogonal to the main concern here.)

    Student work is evaluated on performance in all its facets, and so the work needs to be by the student in its entirety. When the work is plagiarized or ghostwritten, the professor is no longer evaluating the person he is charged to evaluate, but someone else altogether. Taking a test in someone else's name is corrupt in the same way and for the same reason. Similarly, for a novelist to plagiarize another novelist causes the critics and the public to be evaluating the wrong novelist. Getting help on a paper at the writing center, or having your novel edited by your publisher, is not corrupt, because the help is only suggestions: the author remains responsible for implementing them or not.

    (Disclosure: When typing my daughter's handwritten student papers, I automatically correct her spelling, punctuation, and formatting. I consider this a form of mechanical assistance, only a few notches up from what Word provides. Doubtless this improves her grades somewhat.)

    At the other extreme, a politician delivering a speech is judged primarily on the veracity and content of the speech, and so it does not matter if someone else wrote every word of it, provided the politician agrees with its content. It is lying and hypocrisy that are sins in a politician. (In a student they are not, in a certain sense: a student may write a legitimate A paper while privately disagreeing with its premise entirely.) However, if your speech contains a slogan or catchphrase that becomes popular, it would be corrupt not to acknowledge that you drew the phrase from an existing source (public domain or not), because here you are being judged not as a politician but as an author (on a small scale).

    Scientific papers are not generally judged on style or mechanics, and so it is not corrupt to hire someone else to heavily rewrite your paper. On the other hand, the research behind the paper is an important factor in evaluating the scholar, and so it is extremely corrupt to hire someone to do the research for you and not give them author credit. I note that Amy Reynaldo speaks of "editorial or review" papers and not research papers; I hope that medical ghostwriters are confining themselves to writing, and not doing medical research (or worse yet pretending to do it, in the manner of Ed Dante). I don't know how much scholarly credit doctors get for publishing these papers, so I can't judge the practice. It may be understood in some fields that some of the names on the paper have done little or no work on it, but that is not corrupt, because it is a convention.

    As for Dr. Z, I very much doubt that he was actually being judged, either qua administrator or qua faculty member, on the contents of his column. As long as the columns were not misrepresenting the state of knowledge in his field, which would be the different sin of publishing known error, then it's legitimate for him to have someone else do the column in its entirety. Would that certain better-known columnists had hired someone competent to write their columns for them!

    Mr. Fnortner's marketing V.P. is in yet another position. As a manager, it is expected that he depends on the work of his staff, and it's mostly up to him to evaluate that work. If the staff members depend for promotion on the quality of their work as seen by others in the company, then removing their names from it would be corrupt. If the effort is seen as inherently collaborative, then using only the superior's name is not corrupt, since he is responsible for all of it even though he wrote none of it.

    I think the artist biographies fall under the rule of convention. I once attended a theatrical performance that a friend of mine, a writer, had participated in in some technical capacity. After reading the actor biographies, I turned to his, which duly listed his accomplishments, and ended with "He is bemused to be writing about himself in the third person."

    [(myl) I largely agree with this analysis, though I would not myself feel comfortable acting as Dr. Z did. But I've never seen such a discussion in the material presented to students about the definition and consequences of plagiarism. Nor have I ever participated in a formal discussion of such issues with academic colleagues (nor with company employees, when I worked in industry).

    I suspect that the people responsible for instructing students on such matters have never explicitly considered and rejected discussing the issues in these terms. If you asked them, I suspect they would say that such discussions are a bad idea, because they would confuse people. But in my experience, most people are deeply confused anyhow — as that DP news story suggests — and see the situation as one of arbitary double standards in a moral swamp of pervasive hypocrisy. (As opposed to a whiff of hypocrisy at the edges of cultural norms that mostly have sound functional motivations.) ]

  8. Keith Trnka said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    It's not exactly the same, but for publications I'd draw the line based on who did the research. The writing isn't the contribution (though it has a huge effect).

    In the case of the department chair and president, what they're doing doesn't seem right to me. I'm okay with them having their names on it, like a seal of approval, but the people responsible for the creative ideas should also be included.

    That brings me to students – if there were a reliable way for the student to do the "work" of an assignment and someone else to do the writing, that wouldn't bother me nearly as much as someone that pays for both parts.

  9. Jonathan Badger said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

    In science there is currently the issue of the increasing number of journal submissions written in nearly unintelligible English due to recent pressure for researchers in places like China to get their work published in internationally read journals.

    While I often suggest to the authors that they work with a native English speaker to revise their manuscript so that reviewers can fairly judge the results, what if they don't know any native English speakers? In this case, I could see a revising service as being totally understandable and ethical.

    However, I don't see the medical ghostwriting industry where academics are essentially sign their name to a industrial study to make it look like a unbiased academic one is ethical nor is the horrible credit abuse of X by Dr. Z.

  10. John Lawler said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    Luckily, this is a problem I need no longer consider crucial for me, since I've retired from professoring. But it does affect colleagues, as it always has. In another academic blog (Female Science Professor) it's just being discussed as well.

  11. Michael Johnson said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 2:32 pm

    If a psychiatrist is having her work ghostwritten by a pharmaceutical company, or someone contracted by a pharmaceutical company, the potential result is costing patients lots of money (e.g. if the manuscript recommends expensive drug A, produced by the company, over a bioequivalent cheaper alternative), or costing patients their lives (e.g. by recommending the company's drugs, even if they have greater risks than the alternatives). Note that you could never really pin these charges on anyone– they can always claim that they dispute the studies that show A and B to be bioequivalent or that the side effects of drug C are worth the cost, or whatever. But when we read the work of a medical expert, as opposed to a big pharma propagandist, we expect impartial expert opinion (to the extent that opinion can be impartial) and– whether we should or not– defer more to the expert than we would to the shill. It certainly seems like a violation of the expert's duty to violate our trust so.

    Here's another similar case where a drug company contracted to have an entire book ghostwritten for someone:

    via Ben Goldacre

  12. Mark but not that Mark said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    A high-profile case in Canada.

  13. Michael Johnson said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

    Sorry, please read "a drug company contracted" in my last post as "a drug company allegedly contracted."

  14. peterm said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 3:04 pm

    Mr Fnortner said (December 5, 2010 @ 1:02 pm)

    "In a second matter, a cultural institution I consult with periodically exhibits the work of creative people who have established reputations or careers outside this particular institution. Almost always the exhibitors provide the institution flattering biographical puff pieces describing their accomplishments which the institution publishes intact in program material."

    It is standard practice, at least in the western world, for classical music concert programmes to include biographies of soloists and conductors written and provided by the soloists and conductors themselves (or by their publicity agents). These biographies are invariably puff pieces, but are usually written in the third person and typically with no acknowledgment of authorship. There is no question at all that these are intended to deceive readers as being objective accounts and as having been written by the organization or impresario who organized the concert. There is also no question at all that few regular audience members are so deceived.

  15. Diane said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

    I wrote a long response and then realized I was basically repeating John Cowan.

    The one point I disagree with John Cowan on is the question of Dr. Z. If the student was doing the research, they should have gotten their name on the column. I speak as a graduate student in biology and part-time freelance writer who earns money by rewriting other people's work. I do some work for non-native speakers seeking to publish research articles, and a little bit of work for native English speakers writing review articles or the like, who are not good writers. In both cases I work with the authors to figure out what they are trying to say, and then help them say it in a clear and interesting manner. I don't get any credit for this, and I don't expect it. But if I had to come up with any ideas or do any research, even just a lit search, I would consider myself an author and expect credit. It would have been easy enough for Dr. Z to write "by Dr. Z and Ms. Student" and I think he was cheating by not doing so.

  16. Dan K said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    Wow, how did this get so complicated?

    I have to disagree with John Cowan's analysis on a few points. It's extremely unethical to behave as Dr. Z did. People read that column for exactly one reason, to benefit from the insights of someone of Dr. Z's status and experience. All of those people are being defrauded, they're being tricked into reading a column by some nobody, some person who may not eventually even get a degree, let alone achieve Dr. Z's high status in the field. They're taking it on faith that the insights expressed by the author of that column are valuable, because they trust Dr. Z. It may in fact be a better column, with more insight and intelligence than Dr. Z could have provided. So the people who choose their reading material that way are fools. But they're entitled to be fools, in the same way that people who spend millions of dollars on garish art are entitled to authentic garish art.

    Similarly, when a politician speaks or "writes" with someone else's words, it's completely dishonest, and designed for the sole purpose of misleading the public into overestimating the politician's intelligence, articulateness, writing ability, etc. The fact that it's universal and accepted doesn't diminish this, in my view.

    Last point — many academic journals have explicit standards for what merits authorship credit. It's very reasonable, especially in science, to have writing per se left off that list. I'd rather see writing credit given, but it doesn't violate any reasonable expectation, as long as the work described is the work of the listed authors. I imagine this is different in different fields, though.

  17. D.O. said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 4:09 pm

    John Cowan

    Student work is evaluated on performance in all its facets, and so the work needs to be by the student in its entirety. When the work is plagiarized or ghostwritten, the professor is no longer evaluating the person he is charged to evaluate, but someone else altogether.

    From student's perspective, the grade maybe the only thing they are after, but for the teacher, student's work on the assignment is the learning process. So important point here is to make student to learn. Evaluation is only a secondary purpose and, of course, a stick to make the student to study.
    I am not sure what to make of the other examples. Dr. Z's behavior makes me uneasy, but I cannot pinpoint what exactly is the problem. Maybe it's just a somewhat irrational sense of fairness like the one tested in the Ultimatum game. It would be interesting to know whether Dr. Z and student X made an undisclosure agreement whereby student X cannot claim authorship later on (it might be useful in applying for a job). What kind of penalties might be attached to such an agreement? If Dr. Z feels that the future disclosure will degrade his reputation and puts a money figure on it, is it possible to consider that this "monetary value of reputation" was obtained by fraud? Sorry for off-top.

    [(myl) Dr. Z has long since gone to his reward, and Ms. X (long since Dr. X) has gone on to a successful career of her own.]

  18. Anonymouse said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    The Project on Government Oversight detailed four examples of corporate funded ghostwriting in their letter to the NIH. You can read all four examples and view the supporting documents l, as well.

  19. GeorgeW said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    @myl: The "credit" in Palin's book you posted reads to me like it too was ghostwritten. It sounds very un-Palinesque to me. "Parquet?" Hmm.

    [(myl) "Parquet" is a sportwriters' (and sports commentators') cliché for "basketball court". A current Google New search turns up nearly 8,000 hits, such as "Eagles A-OK against Minutemen on parquet", "Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo admitted his third-quarter plunge to the Garden parquet was "scary," but said his left knee was fine", "since Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen took their combined talents to the parquet for the 2007-08 season", "Move over Boston Garden — there will soon be a basketball court more unique than your famous parquet", "He will be playing on the precious parquet of the Celtics, a team Gurley has unabashedly loved since he started to dribble.", "Last year's Bulldogs relied much more on scrap, on clawing for every parcel of parquet they could claim.", etc. etc.

    Recalling that Sarah Palin worked as a "sportscaster for KTUU-TV and KTVA-TV in Anchorage, and as a sports reporter for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman" (according to Wikipedia), it's completely in character for her to use that word.]

  20. Chris said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 5:29 pm

    Is there a principled difference between this and an artist like Andy Warhol creating a "factory" (a now common and accepted practice in the art world)? I would not have a problem with an academic factory (aka "lab") as long as the output was honest and trustworthy work.

  21. Dominik Lukes said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    One aspect of the Dr Z / student X situation that seems to have been overlooked in this discussion is the ethics of putting X in that position. Sure Dr Z is defrauding his readers not by the ghostwriting (which…who cares) but by his lack of involvement in the selection of topics and the lack of editorial input to the finished product.

    But he is also depriving X of credit essential for the progress in the field and diminishing her options in being a future public figure in her own right. The fact that she is doing this of her "own free will" by contractual agreement does not absolve Dr Z of the ethical nature of his exploitation. It further compromises their position with respect to institution Y in the same way as if they were having a romantic involvement.

    There is a subtle but important difference between X and a ghostwriter for a non-academic celebrity and one for an academic – the former could not write the work with any degree of independent legitimacy (you can't write an 'auto-biography' of Keith Richards or a politico's vision for a country unless you are a ghostwriter) whereas the latter could with support from the academic.

    I believe Dr Z should be exposed for fraud and exploitation and punished severely, his genuine qualifications as academic and/or administrator notwithstanding.

    [(myl) He's been dead for a couple of decades.]

  22. Dominik Lukes said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 5:47 pm

    @Chris This (workshops, factories, labs) has always been the accepted way in the art world (including, to an extent, fiction – see the case of Dick Francis) but in research and academia, there are simply too many ways of giving credit and too many consequences of receiving it or not, that I think it is immoral not to do so.

  23. mgh said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    The attribution question is interesting, but the more pertinent one here seems to me to be conflict of interest reporting. How do you honestly disclose conflicts of interest for an author whose contributions you are not acknowledging?

  24. Plane said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    I'm curious how "self-plagiarism" fits into this.

  25. Sili said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 6:54 pm

    [(myl) He's been dead for a couple of decades.]

    Still leaves open the possibility of micturating on his grave.

  26. Dhananjay said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 7:47 pm

    The question in the case of Dr Z is whether he pointed to the column as evidence of his performance in his job, or even whether this was implicit in evaluations of him by the regents or trustees of his university, etc. It seems to me that the answer is almost certainly affirmative – that's the whole point of writing a nationally syndicated column instead of a newsletter to employees or donors or whatever. So I think this ghost-writing case collapses into that of the student or academic passing off work under their own name which belongs to another, i.e., plagiarism, the censure of which derives from a sense that unfair gains have accrued to the plagiarizer.

  27. Peter G. Howland said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

    Ghost writers in the sky:

    “I don’t actually have the, whaduhya call it? Insight? Intelligence?…Or maybe it’s that Clarity of Thought thingy?…to come up with all this grizzly international policy stuff on my own, but sure, sounds good to me. Sign my name to it!”
    Love, Sarah

    “What I’m going to suggest, Ms. Smudnocker, is that you write this column for me every month, without any mention of or credits to your authorship, and I’ll let you graduate. And if you ever reveal this to anyone, the deal’s off. Got it? Uh, is that a new dress?”
    Dr. Z.

    “No shit? That’s what I think? Did you ask Carl? Well, golleee damn howdy! Sure-nuff! Y’all can sign it, you know, ‘Me’.”

    “Okay, but don’t you dare write anything about Lawrence being my daddy! Our coven meets once a month, you know, and after we’re finished with our “special purpose” exercises, we’ll come and get ya’! Ghosts don’t scare us, even if they are writers!”

    * * *
    @ John Cowan – I agree with your observations regarding the lack of ethics of having others write papers, reports, articles, etc., without acknowledgement or admission of actual authorship. Conversely, I also think we can agree that when technical editors/writers can clear up clunkers and correct grammatical or syntactical errors for professionals that they should surely be allowed to do so without credit. But I further believe that students should be entirely accountable for every aspect of their work, including spelling, punctuation, and formatting. Teach your daughter to type. Tutor her in spelling and punctuation. Coach her in the importance of formatting and presentation. These are all important facets upon which a student’s work and their progress in the learning experience should be judged. Dad won’t always be there to make it all better.

  28. GeorgeW said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    myl: Thanks for the information about the sporting use of 'parquet.'

    I didn't think any self-respecting Mamma Grizzly would use words of French origin? Maybe there is a sporting exception.

  29. Janne said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 8:47 pm

    @Jonathan Badger has a good point: for scholarly articles the editing and actual writing is not important. If, as in his example, a researcher brings in a native-language speaker to edit and rewrite their paper in acceptable English, there really is no material difference if that speaker is a friend, a language editor employed by the university or an outside commercial service. It's the research that counts, not the text.

    Consider all those last authors – the PI or lab leader – in research papers. It's "their" article and they can properly put in on their CV, and yet they may often not even have seen the final text, and may have only a birds-eye view of the research it presents. For all intents and purposed the PI is hiring people to do their research and write their papers for them, and we rightly see that as perfectly appropriate. We recognize that there are many kinds of possible contributions, and being overall research leader and funding source is an important one.

    For students, I believe it is critical to make clear what the point is of their essays. It's not to simply make a text about some subject – at their level there's already many much better treatments available, and nobody is going to refer to their essay for anything. Nobody will care about that text once it's done. The whole point is for them to show their understanding of the subject matter. Having somebody else write it is like having somebody else stand in for your ID card picture – sure, the picture may end up looking better, but it negates the whole point of having a picture in the first place.

  30. Bobbie said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

    Years ago I was the proofreader and copy editor for Dr V and Dr A when they wrote a textbook for college students. The publisher hired someone else to write the study guide to go along with the textbook. The study guide was so poorly written that I was asked to rewrite it, but I was told up front that my name could not appear as an author. I have no idea if the original author of the study guide ever saw the revised edition that accompanied the textbook. I was paid for my work.
    (Full disclosure: I was married to one of the professors who wrote the textbook!)

  31. Dan K said,

    December 5, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

    I don't watch much basketball anymore, but when I was growing up in the mid-80s, "parquet" was only used for basketball courts that actually had a parquet design (to the best of my lousy recollection, and Wikipedia backs me up, it was only the Boston Celtics among pro teams). It would have been very jarring to hear someone describe any other floor as parquet. Has "parquet" since been extended to describe basketball courts that are not actualy parquet?

    [(myl) Apparently — and not only in English: "Reduce dal turno di riposo imposto dal calendario, la Crazy Ghosts Battipaglia ritorna sul parquet per affrontare al Palazauli (domenica, ore 11) la Lupiae Lecce, in un incontro valevole quale quinta giornata del torneo di serie B di basket in carrozzina." ]

  32. John Cowan said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 2:24 am

    Dan K.: It sounds like you completely differ from my analysis, not only on certain points. I wonder if you think that editing of a book by the publisher's editor is equally illegitimate on the grounds that it misleads the public about the abilities of the author. If not, why not?

    Peter G. Howland: My position is considerably different from what you summarize it as. I do not think that it is always unethical to use ghostwriters: please reread my comments.

    As for the technical repairs I personally do: if my daughter were taking a composition class, I would make no such corrections, as that would corrupt her evaluation in accordance with my general principle. True that I won't always be there. Would you require students to turn off auto-correction and auto-formatting in their papers? won't always be there either.

    For that matter, keyboards and printers aren't always there, but it's more for the teacher's convenience than the student's education that papers are required to be typed — it makes them easier to read by providing standardized letterforms rather than idiosyncratic ones. A modest amount of human correction in any other type of class is, in my opinion, comparable.

  33. Dan K said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    @John Cowan: It depends on the nature of the editing, the nature of the book, and the nature of the author, obviously. Some kinds of editing are misleading (violate reasonable expectations), others aren't, and I don't think it's easy to articulate a rule that covers it. To me, the acid test thought experiment is: would at least a substantial minority of readers feel misled if they found out about it later?

    I'm not sure what kinds of examples would be illuminating, but here are some personal and probably not illuminating standards. When I read books by athletes, my (I hope reasonable) expectation is that the book is in the athlete's "voice" to some extent but has otherwise been massaged heavily, or even transcribed from tape, by an editor who may or may not get co-author credit. When I read books by well-regarded novelists, my expectation (often violated, I'm sure) is that the editor's involvement is superficial, and subject to the author's approval. When I read journal articles, my expectation is that the work I'm reading about was conducted as described, and that the listed authors were responsible for the substantive contributions to the literature. Your expectations may be different.

    @myl, I don't read Italian, so I pasted the bit you quoted into Google's translator. It translated "parquet" as "court." The word by itself gets translated as "parquet" or "parquetry," while "ritorna sul parquet" becomes "back on the floor." Neat.

  34. Mr Fnortner said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    In my memory (long enough), basketball court floors have always been beautiful works of hardwood artistry. The floor at the Boston Garden is parquetry. Perhaps this fact led to the propagation of parquet as a term for all basketball floors. Refer to "The History of the Parquet Floor" here ( for a decent photo.

  35. Ken Brown said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    On whose behalf was Professor Z writing?

    When the Queen (or one of her Governors General in Parts Foreign) makes an official speech to open Parliament or greet the heed of state of some other country, no-one imagines that she wrote it herself or that it exactly represents her private opinion. She is speaking on behalf of her government, and she says what she is told to say. She's in some sense a representative of the British state (or the Canadian or Kiwi or Jamaican one), a figurehead, a shop window, a messenger.

    The master of the college I work at makes speeches to public bodies now and again. And also to the staff and students of the college. Very often he makes comments about legislation or funding or other public matters that affect the college. As far as I know he writes his own talks (he often doesn't use notes), but if he didn't, I don't think it would bother me that much, They aren't just his personal opinions but they are also some kind of official position of the college (or sometimes blatant lobbying on behalf of the college).

    As for student plagiarism, why not explicitly discuss the difference between different kinds of writing in class? An academic assignment is different from a research paper, which is different from an academic review article, which is different from journalism. Work for hire is different from an individual's private opinion which is different from the collaborative output of a research team. We expect media studies students to understand all that! Surely science students can cope with the concepts?

  36. John said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    I'll have to disagree with Dan K. on the dishonesty of ghostwritten speeches or articles by politicians.

    For many years, I worked in the Public Affairs/Information section of US embassies. Part of my job–unless I could delegate it–was to write speeches, editorials, and letters-to-the-editor for my ambassadors. Many of those ambassadors were serious politicians, indeed.

    I wrote these things because 1) ambassadors had better uses of their time; 2) I understood the issues and the ambassador's approach to them (as delimited by policy); 3) it was part of my job description.

    Ambassador would, to varying extents, freely edit my work to better fit their own conceptions of how they would say things. Sometimes, what I wrote would be left completely intact; sometimes, there'd be massive editing (particularly at the start of an ambassador's tour, when I was learning about his/her individual styles of writing and speech.

    When the ambassador signed off on the final draft, he 'owned it' in every sense of the word, even if I had done the brunt of the drafting.

    If a speech or written item were far outside the ambassador's natural communications style, that fact would become very apparent the first time he had to speak extemporaneously, as in a Q&A at the end of a speech, or at any of the other occasions at which ambassadors are called to speak.

  37. Dan K said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    @John: I'm willing to accept on your say-so that there was nothing unethical or dishonest about this practice in the context you describe. I'm certainly not a consumer of ambassadors' speeches and such, and shouldn't have been so inclusive. But I won't exempt all political ghostwriting.

  38. Nathan said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 3:16 pm

    I find all of this very confusing. I don't think I can appreciate all of the nuances of when it's considered okay to pretend you wrote what someone else wrote. If ambassadors, politicians, etc. don't have time to write speeches, then why in the world is pretending that they do such an important part of the job? I just don't get it. It all smells dishonest to me. Maybe they should just speak extemporaneously.

    I frankly don't see a downside to just stopping all of it. Let everyone claim only their own words as their own. Get rid of all the disguised shilling, judge candidates on their own merits, etc.

  39. John Cowan said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    Nathan: That would require that people release their considered thoughts only in writing, which would greatly lessen their impact.

  40. peterm said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

    Nathan: And what of group-authored documents? For over a decade I made a living as a co-ordinator and lead-writer of commercial documents, such as IPO filings and telecommunications licence applications. These documents may be have as many as 150 or more people directly contributing ideas, facts, analyses, technical information, and text, with possibly hundreds or thousands of supporting staff underneath them. Co-ordinating those contributions and ensuring that the final result reads coherently is a ghost-writing task that is something much more than mere editing, and something much less than sole authorship. And the co-ordinator/lead writer is not usually the person or persons legally responsible for the contents of the document. Modern society would soon come to a halt if the only documents written were those where people only claimed their own words.

  41. Nathan said,

    December 6, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    @peterm: What's the obstacle to listing all 150 people?

  42. Stephen Nicholson said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 12:11 am

    Nathan, while I agree with you the it would be better if people didn't take credit for the work of others when it comes to politicians and such, that's not the world we have. Because that's not the world we have, we need to consider why that is, and how to communicate with students the ideas behind plagiarism.

    As to listing all the various people who contribute to a work, I think it's a good idea, but it's not really done in writing. It is done in film, tv, and theater.


    I think it's for a couple of reasons: 1) theater and it's decedents are clearly collaborations to anyone who watches them. Multiple actors are the most obvious clue. But as a culture, we're aware of scriptwriters, directors, and composers. They win awards and are often famous in their own right. 2) Those industries are unionized and their contracts require certain specific attributions. I'm not aware of a copyeditors union. 3) As a culture we consider writing an individual skill and hold skilled writers in high esteem.

    It is, I think, number 3 that drives Sarah Palin, William Shatner, and Jenna Jameson to hire ghostwriters and put their names on their books. Because, despite all the talk on this webpage there a lot of people who think that celebrities and politicians write their own books. They don't look to closely at the acknowledgements, or they discount the other name on the book in small print.

    As for why formal discussions don't come-up in academia, despite the fact that students must be aware that celebrities plagiarize without penalty, is because it's often phrased in moral absolutes. I was looking at the MLA Handbook (5th Edition) and it describes what might otherwise be considered small errors as intellectual theft and a moral and ethical offense.


    I think that, to some professors, trying get into plagiarism is a little like trying to explain what stealing is bad.

    Another reason is that professors don't really think simple citation errors are plagiarism, but books like the MLA Handbook say it is, and the professor probably doesn't really want to go on record as saying that plagiarism is ok when it's accidental and technical.

    Personally, I think that academia needs to tackle plagiarism head on and really think about whether or not the definitions given in citation manuals are really the definitions they want to use. (You gotta admit, there's a conflict of interest there, though it's kinda small.) Also, while unfair, I think professors and other academics need to be held to a higher standard because they tell students not to plagiarize and promotions and tenure are based on the academic's ability to write their own work.

  43. Jon said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 7:15 am

    My boss (a scientist) one wrote and presented a keynote presentation at an international conference. He listed himself as the third author, putting the names of representatives of two bodies (US and EU) funding the conference as the first two, adding "with X", where X was his own name.
    The American was furious, recognising the "with" as meaning he had made no contribution. The EU man, a Belgian, was blissfully ignorant.

  44. peterm said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    Nathan — Following your reasoning, we would not have just to list 150 people as authors, but also the 15,000 people who work for them, since they too contribute. The chief telecoms engineer, writing (as one of the 150 direct contributors) the section of a telecommunications licence application or an IPO document on the proposed network plan, will be drawing on the work of the scores of engineering staff reporting to him or her in preparing the plan. Moreover, those engineers will typically be using network planning tools, some possibly specially developed for the document-writing task in question. Your reasoning would dictate that the software developers who worked on those tools should also be listed as contributors. There's nothing morally wrong with doing this; it's just completely impractical, as I said before.

  45. peterm said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    Stephen Nicholson: In further support of your arguments, we as a society are telling students that some forms of plagiarism are bad, while other forms are good, even necessary.

    For the last half-century a major part of the discipline of software engineering, for instance, has been about creating and deploying clever methods to support the re-use of program code – eg, this is one of the main benefits claimed for object-oriented programming. Similarly, a key way in which computer science/IT students learn the technical details of their discipline is directly from the mouths and pens of others – students at the next machine in the PC lab, technical staff in charge of the labs, people on online technical discussion forums, writers of technical guidance notes such as those now included in Wikipedia.

    Any discussion of the morality of re-use of the work or ideas of others needs to be subtle to account for these phenomena and yet still criticize plagiarism.

  46. Nathan said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    @peterm: You've definitely taken what I said too far. There are other norms for citing the work of others when you build on their ideas but don't use their words. That's really a different issue. I still honestly don't see why all the people who actually wrote a document can't be credited as authors.

  47. peterm said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    Nathan — I guess I'm having trouble understanding why people who contribute words can get their name on the document as authors, but people who contribute in other forms do not. That Chief Telecoms Engineer I mentioned may not write a single word of the document or his/her written words may not survive the editing process to reach the final document. All the actual words in the final document may be those of the Co-ordinator/Lead Writer. Yet the ideas of the document, and the analysis underpinning these ideas are not those of the Co-ordinator/Lead Writer, but those of the Chief Telecoms Engineer and his/her staff. Putting on the document only the names of the people who contributed words to the final document is unfair and misleading. Putting on the document all the names of the people who contributed something in any form whatsoever is impractical.

    The commercial world we live in generally resolves this problem by leaving off the names of the contributors. As was said above, an exception is the movie industry, who do typically list everyone who contributed, even down to the car drivers of the actors, the guys who held the electric cables during filming, and sometimes even the partners of the law firm of the movie production company.

  48. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 7, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    @Amy Renaldo:

    If you get a well-written manuscript, it might just have been worked on by a professional editor already.

    Staff editors are pretty quick with the "please have this revised by a native speaker" comment (to my amusement, and the even greater amusement of my boss, I once got it for a paper I had written myself; I think some reviewers just say it as soon as the paper is from some country they have a vague prejudice against), and for that reason many non-English-speaking scientists have their papers worked over by someone like me.

    I can assure you I don't do spin, and if there's untenable interpretation in the work the clients have that pointed out to them. But Germans, Austrians, Russians etc. deserve to have their work represented fairly and readably.

  49. J. Goard said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 9:39 am

    I find "ghostwriting" in an academic context to be brazenly unethical, and I find it rather odd that no one yet has emphasized what for me is the primary factor, namely an obligation to present an accurate record to posterity.

    Considering how much blood, sweat and tears has been spent on, say, detailing the influences of Hegel on Nietsche, how would it be to find out that both were really "brands" encompassing whatever myriad minds the respective "owners" felt was worth the going rate?

    Sure, most of us will not produce a single publication that's of interest to anybody a century from now, but really, that's just not our call. Intellectual history is hard enough without breaking the basic presumption of fact in the connection between an author and title.

  50. J. Goard said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    That is to say:

    Both Prof. Z and Ms. X were guilty of betraying anybody who might have a later interest in discussing either of them as thinkers. Maybe someone in 2100 will write a dissertation on "Gender differences in late twentieth-century popular [field W] writing", and will be citing false data thanks to X and Z's myopia.

  51. F. Escobar said,

    December 9, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    Sometimes the habits developed in one job leak (a wicked leak, if you will) to another. There was a (domestically) famous case a few years ago in which a couple of Colombian congressmen were kicked out of a graduate program because they had their staff writers from Congress research and write their papers for graduate school. They were quite surprised when the scandal broke. Their habit of appropriating other people's writings (people paid to allow such appropriation, of course) was too strong to resist when term papers were called for. I've seen professors who are Ph.D. candidates do this with their students, giving them nice grades but no credit for help with dissertation-related research (and even writing). Also, my experience with judges (in another country), who are so accustomed to quoting other people's opinions at length, showed they were prime candidates for inadvertent plagiarizing (I discovered a book-length appropriation once).

  52. David said,

    December 12, 2010 @ 4:32 am

    I've come late to this discussion, but there is one subtlety still worth pointing out. There have been quite a few comments that I might paraphrase as "In scientific writing, its the research that counts, not the writing itself."

    The medical ghostwriting that POGO has been criticizing involves, to a very large extent, review articles. That is, summaries of previously published research, with no new research being performed or reported. This kind of writing is very helpful to practitioners. It is also extremely susceptible to conflict-of-interest bias. Thus, the proper attribution of authorship is critical if readers are to properly assess the work.

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