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I recently learned of the concept of academic ghostwriting (see, e.g. this article) - by which I mean the situation where a student goes to another person, or perhaps a service, and pays them to complete an assignment for them. In the linked article, the writer (a claimed ghostwriter) says that he has written thousands of pages of essays for students, or more accurately, for the students' money.

I'm entirely unfamiliar with this concept and type of work, and I'm surprised to learn that it seems to be common, at least to some extent. In the comments to the article, the claimed ghostwriter says that the act of ghostwriting is legal (although he makes no claims regarding ethics). So my question is:

Is academic ghostwriting illegal?

I would expect this type of work to constitute fraud, or perhaps qualify as some sort of assumed copyright or something. What is the actual legal status of academic ghostwriting?

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@justkt: Thank you for the edit. I was afraid that people would find this off topic here, but I see that's not the case. –  mixedmath Dec 2 '11 at 3:54
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I can see how this question would be of deep ethical interest to many writers. –  justkt Dec 2 '11 at 13:31
    
One note: Your customers are by definition 1. Immoral, 2. Stupid. While you may be in the clear legally, if they are caught, they will look for a scapegoat and they will blame you for their failure. You won't be fined or imprisoned but with enough bad luck you may end up a few teeth short and with some limbs in a cast. –  SF. Oct 25 '13 at 10:57
    
@Standback I find that my question is currently distinctly worse now than after the initial edit of justkt. The body is not standalone from the title, there is no context or clarification. It is bland and boring - if I saw this question, I would not want to answer it in its current state. But I do not want to rollback on my own, as I do not pay attention to the meta (or Meta) for this site. Would you rollback if you agree? Also, the comments here do not make sense, probably because another question was merged in. Can you delete those (and this comment, once you've read it)? –  mixedmath Mar 16 at 13:09
    
@mixedmath Thanks for letting me know; I've rolled back and done some slight rephrasings I think will leave everybody pleased. I've also cleaned up the comments, which were definitely unclear following the merge - thanks! –  Standback Mar 16 at 15:16

5 Answers 5

In response to your specific question, I would say that ghostwriting is NOT illegal. However, I would say that it IS unethical, unfair, cheating, and a violation of academic policies. We had a discussion on this topic on the meta site a short while back after someone had asked about how to lower his writing standards to make it seem more like he was a younger writer.

As I mentioned there, I have two teenagers in high school, and each of them was required to sign an agreement that specifically addressed this and a number of other topics, such as plagiarism. This document was intended to be a social contract with the students to state that they understood these academic policies, while also stating clearly that the school has a zero tolerance policy against such activities. Furthermore, I was required to sign the document as well to indicate that I also had read and understood the policies.

Not too many years ago I went back to school to obtain my MBA, and I was required to read and sign a similar document that clearly stated that these types of activities would not be tolerated or accepted. While these examples are not legal documents stating that these activities were illegal, they are clearly stated policies. As such, they made it perfectly clear that such behavior was considered cheating and would not be tolerated.

Anyone can justify something in their own minds if they really want to do it, but the bottom line is that there are policies and procedures that provide acceptable guidelines for performance and behavior. Anyone who uses a ghostwriter to create their writing assignments is in clear violation of these policies.

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I think this is the core point - students are often breaking their regulations by producing work that is not their own. If found out, they risk being expelled. The writers themselves are just legal, although their advertising might be interesting to see! Morally, they are at the level of loan sharks, who only lend money because there is a demand for it.... –  Schroedingers Cat Jul 23 '12 at 13:47
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I'm fairly sure your graduation thesis must be your own, and proving that someone else wrote it for you is basis for revoking your graduate title. Anything else is subject to personal policy of teachers: if they catch you on "ghostwriting" they are expected to fail you. –  SF. Oct 25 '13 at 10:49

It's going to be difficult to give an absolute answer to any legal question since laws and their interpretation vary widely by jurisdiction. Also, IANAL.

But, in general terms - are you looking for a way to see it as illegal to sell the papers? I can see buying (and using) the essays being seen as fraud, as well as being against academic honesty policies, but I'm not sure I can see the selling as criminal. The person who wrote the essay (or the mill that employs that person) holds the copyright, and they license the student to use the essay. It's my understanding that most essay mills say that they are writing to contract, but have no actual idea what the purchasers are doing with their product. Selling a piece of writing isn't illegal, and they can't be responsible for what the buyers do with the product post-sale.

Now, opinion time: Going after the essay mills for supplying essays makes as much sense to me as going after the drug supplying countries in Central America instead of addressing the demand in the United States. It's easier to blame someone else: the evil essay mills or the nasty foreigners. But the real problem is our precious darlings in the classrooms, and our addicted drug users on the streets. If you deal with the demand, the supply will dry up. If you don't deal with the demand, all you're going to do is drive the suppliers further underground, and drive up the prices.

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Are you telling me there's a secret flow of adverbs coming into the country from South America?! –  Lauren Ipsum Dec 1 '11 at 11:35
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I think South America is big on nouns. The adverbs are mostly from South East Asia, as I understand it. (None of this is first hand information, you understand. I would never!) –  Kate Sherwood Dec 1 '11 at 12:21
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I hear that Canadian adjectives are considerably cheaper, but they have additives which the U.S. generally doesn't use, like extra Us in "colourful" and "favourable." –  Lauren Ipsum Dec 1 '11 at 13:04
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That's what The Man WANTS you to believe! Really, the Canadian product is superior - the U makes things sweeter, and just a little psychedelic. –  Kate Sherwood Dec 2 '11 at 11:50

Academic ghostwriting is legal, but not ethical or in keeping with the standards or practices of most schools. That is easy to answer. What is harder is, is it ethical, legal or in keeping with the practices of schools to have an editor "proof" a paper, or "tweak" or make/suggest changes to the paper to make it better? At what point does "editing" become "ghostwriting," and is reading a dissertation to ensure sources are properly cited, noted, referenced or that passages are used appropriately unethical?

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I can't see how reading a dissertation to check for sources could be considered "unethical." Can you explain that comment? –  Lauren Ipsum Dec 3 '11 at 11:42
    
@LaurenIpsum lol i agree –  ryan Mar 6 at 5:02

In short its about IP. In academia if someone does not contribute enough to the idea itself to be an coauthor then there is no question as to the legitimacy of the grade given to the work. The person who helps you organise your dissertation into a presetable format is not making any intellectual contribution to the work itself.

I used something like a ghostwriter to help quickly publish a research paper. I was called before the chair of my department years ago and called a cheat and a liar. The ghost did appear as lesser co-author as I always intended and had previously agreed.

The response by Dr Howard Curzer a distinguished ethics professor:

This is indeed a complex case. Let's begin with some terminological points. A ghostwriter doesn't appear as an author. (That is what "ghost" means; the ghost is invisible.) Neither does an editor. So if your original arrangement was that this person would do certain tasks in exchange for authorship, then the original plan was that he/she would be neither a ghostwriter nor an editor, but rather a co-author.

If all he/she did was take dictation and change words and syntax, then he/she should not be an author. But the odd thing about your letter is that his/her authorship seems not to be at issue. Rather the dispute seems to be about whether you should be an author. That makes me think that he/she did more than transcription and editing. Or at least he/she thinks so. And since you seem to accept his/her authorship, it seems that you think so too. So one question is: what did he/she do that makes both of you think he/she deserves authorship? Was it like this: You explained the results you got, and he/she wrote it using very different organization, wording, format, etc.? That would be worthy of authorship and much more than editing. But this is just one possibility. Without more information, I am unsure of what to think about his/her authorship.

Let's take up the question of your own authorship. Now the amount of work you did (measured in number of hours) is actually not relevant. Instead, the crucial factor is what your intellectual contribution to the research is. If you were just following the detailed instructions of a supervisor, then you were acting as a technician rather than a researcher. But if you were given general instructions and left to figure out how to accomplish the task, then you were a researcher making an intellectual contribution. Or if the project was your idea in the first place you were obviously a researcher. There are many possible scenarios, and there are borderline cases that add an extra level of complication. Overall, I wouldn't want to take a position on your authorship status without knowing more of the facts. But to repeat, the general principle is that the larger your intellectual contribution is, the more deserving of authorship you are.

Updated comments from Dr. Curzer:

I think I understand the negativity on the page you mention. It arises from the fact that the CHE article is not really about ghostwriting at all. It is about one person paying someone else to write a paper from scratch. The student then presents the paper as his/her own work, even though he/she contributed absolutely nothing to the paper. That is pretty clearly immoral.

You could leave my stuff in the comments, if you like. Or you might take it down since it doesn’t speak to the issue discussed in the CHE. Either way is fine with me.

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The act of writing is not illegal. The use of this writing and foisting it on others as original when it is not is dishonest.

Think of a man/woman who sells a gun. if they KNOWINGLY sell it to someone not qualified to own it or who states they want to harm someone else then there is an issue.

If you know your work will be used to deceive someone else then if nothing more you are guilty of being a willing participant in that deception. So, is your intent to be deceptive?

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The problem with this is that they can "sell" the work as "examples of expected writing" or suchlike, and claim that they had no expectation that the students would hand them in as their own work. They are lying, of course, but that is a moral issue, not a legal one. Morally, they are wrong. Legally, the student is, almost certainly, breaking their commitment to the institution to produce original work. –  Schroedingers Cat Jul 23 '12 at 13:44

protected by Monica Cellio Oct 31 '13 at 15:37

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