Avoiding plagiarism :Guideline 26-Ghost Authorship, Academic & Professional Ghost Authorship

Ghost Authorship
Ghost authorship occurs when a written work fails to identify individuals who made
significant contributions to the research and writing of that work. Although in recent times
this unethical practice is typically associated with the pharmaceutical and biomedical
device industry, the term is also applicable in a number of other contexts. For example, in
academic contexts, it is widely recognized as cheating to have someone other than the
named student author write a paper that is then submitted as the student’s own. Perhaps
with some exceptions (e.g., speech writers), ghost authorship is ethically unacceptable
because the reader is mislead as to the actual contributions made by the named author.

Academic Ghost Authorship
A not uncommon form of academic dishonesty that has probably always existed is to
have someone else other than the student (a friend or relative), complete an assignment or
write a paper. Several Internet sites now exist that, in addition to making available copies
of papers that have already been written, they also provide custom-written papers,
including doctoral theses. The customer (i.e., student) specifies the topic and other
requirements for the paper and, for a fee, a staff writer for the service will supply a customwritten
product. For an eye-opening account of how this practice works even before the
proliferation of on-line paper mill sites, I refer the reader to Whitherspoon (1995)’s
personal account as a Ghostwriter.
Situations in which authors, whether students or professionals, find themselves in need
of extensive external assistance with their writing can also raise some interesting ethical
dilemmas. For example, consider the doctoral candidate who, because of limited writing
skills, relies heavily on an individual or editorial service resulting in that individual making
substantial editorial changes to the writing of the thesis. Such a situation may be acceptable
as long as the named author indicates in a byline or acknowledgement section the full
extent of others’ assistance. This, however, is not always done and one of the reasons is
that such acknowledgement may reflect negatively on the author as possibly indicating that
s/he does not have the necessary skills expected of a doctoral candidate. By
mischaracterizing or by not acknowledging altogether the high level of assistance received,
students falsely portray a level of academic competency that they truly lack. In instances in
which doctoral students anticipate relying on outside individuals to help with the writing of
a thesis or even term paper, it is strongly recommended that they confer with their thesis
committee and supervisor to determine the accepted parameters of such assistance and to
fully disclose the nature of the assistance received.
Professional Ghost Authorship
In the literary world ghost authorship is most often associated with celebrity-authored
works in which a celebrity, together with a skilled writer produce written products, such as
an autobiography or a sort of “tell all” book. Although much of the writing may be done by
the ghost writer, his/her contributions are not always acknowledged and, consequently, in
those instances the reader may be mislead into believing that the celebrity is the sole author
of the work.
In the biomedical sciences ghost writing has become particularly problematic (see
Ngai, Gold, Gill, & Rochon, 2005). For example, in a typical scenario, a pharmaceutical or
medical device company will hire an outside researcher with known expertise in the
company’s line of products (e.g., antidepressants) to write an “balanced ” review of their
product. To facilitate the write-up of the paper, the company furnishes the expert with a
draft of the paper that had already been prepared by a ghost author employed by the
company. And, as it often happens in these types of cases, the resulting paper ends up
portraying the product in a more favorable light than in reality it might deserve.
The extent of ghost contributions can range from the initial draft framing of a
manuscript to the complete or nearly complete write-up of the paper (see the distinction
made by Chalmers as cited by Altus, 2006). In either case, the main concern is the extent
to which the writing influences the reader toward a particular product or point of view
rather than presenting an unbiased position or data. In the past few years, several articles
and editorials have condemned the practice as ethically questionable. For example, the
World Association of Medical Editors has produced a position statement, which considers
ghost authorship dishonest and unacceptable.
GUIDELINE 26: Academic or professional ghost authorship in
the sciences is ethically unacceptable.
Sources on publication and authorship from which the above guidelines were derived
o Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Guidelines On Good Publication Practice
o International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts
Submitted to Biomedical Journals
o British Sociological Association: Authorship Guidelines for Academic Papers
o For additional references on authorship consult The Council of Science Editors