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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.

In short, this stuns me. I somehow completely missed this during my undergraduate career (I'm now a PhD student). In the comments to the article, the claimed ghostwriter says that the act of ghostwriting is legal (no claims on ethics - and the student is at fault). So my question is:

Is academic ghostwriting illegal?

It seems that it constitutes fraud, or perhaps some sort of assumed copyright or something. It's hard to say. Perhaps this is just an effect of the sheer lack of ethics that I feel is required to do such a thing.

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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
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

4 Answers 4

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
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
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
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
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

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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