Ghostwriting as normal

What is discussed here as social plagiarism (or outsourcing) is something echoed in contemporary culture by the various forms of ghostwriting. The existence of this practice could have some normalising effect on plagiarising. Put bluntly, the case for outsourcing an assignment may appear less culturally inappropriate when the practice is seen to be so intensively pursued in the wider world.

Of course, plagiarism and ghostwriting do not mean the same thing. The differences hinge on the issue of permission, with ghostwriting generally less problematic if what is written truly represents the perspective of the named author/speaker – who confirms that themself. But sometimes the matter of concern is the very fact of authorship, particularly in scholarship and science where much hinges on issues of originality and reputation. One commentator concludes: “..whether or not ghostwriting is an offense depends heavily on a variety of factors, most importantly the audience’s expectations and the importance of authorship to the piece…the expectations of the audience and how much the work depends upon the integrity of the authorship”.

Yet these niceties may not be acknowledged in everyday understandings of ghostwriting. More simply, what students and others will notice is that the practice of ghosting is widely distributed across key areas of cultural life. Thereby, perhaps, softening any guilt felt about importing it into academic study.

Realms of ghostwriting

Although ghostwriting is pervasive, it is probably most discussed in the following areas: scholarship, politics, biography, and celebrity. Nevertheless, the scale of the business supporting it may not be fully appreciated. This certainly includes recruitment agencies: organisations that are very similar in their methods to those discussed here in relation to social plagiarism. In common with contract cheating, there is no shortage of ghosting authors who have written blog posts or newspaper articles revealing the inside story of the ghostwriter’s experience.

Ghostwriting in the realm of scholarship may have the most significant societal impact. Its existence has given rise to the field of “publication ethics”, within which there has been special concern with self-plagiarism, whereby authors recycle academic writing across various outlets. However, in reviews of this practice, neither Robinson (2012) nor Bretag and Mahmud (2009) feel that this is serious enough to attract the derogatory label ‘plagiarism’. A further source of authorship tension arises in the case of senior academics who publish work that was, in fact, conducted by their students. Becker (2008) interviewed five postgraduates who had formally reported academic misconduct of this kind. A significant observation was that university management failed to resolve these reports. Evidently, cases of this kind are not straightforward: they may be complicated through involving contracts of employment or stipends that might underpin the work done by a student.

Medicine is often cited as a discipline with distinctive problems in relation to ambiguous authorship. The problems are often illustrated with the case of misrepresenting the consequences of menopausal hormone therapy (HRT). Fugh-Berman (2010) used litigation documents to demonstrate how a pharmaceutical company used ghostwritten articles to present misleading data on risks of breast cancer while promoting unsupported benefits. The case demonstrates how organisation with a commercial interest in a product can commission scientific expertise to ‘author’ prewritten articles. It is unclear how widespread these practices are – but media and public both recognise that scientific authorship can be a dark area.

The consequences of commissioning authors to write in ones own name may be less serious in other areas of public life. Certainly, it is widely assumed – and tolerated – that politicians and captains of industry (perhaps including the university industry) will often be voicing the words of speech writers. Accordingly, there are lively ghosting recruitment possibilities in the niche of politics. An individual who commissions words they will later use might have concerns about being able to conceal who actually wrote them. Writers are aware of this. One leading agency is able to reassure customers – in terms perhaps reminiscent of essay mills: “We will not share your information with anyone and once the documents are done the copyright will convert to you making it yours to do with as you see fit. No one will ever know that you have obtained our services except you.” The same point is made by the site in relation to music ghosting – perhaps a less obvious form of concealed authorship.

Finally, it is widely understood that biographies of the famous will often be written with expert ‘support’. Although usually that support is acknowledged on book covers and title pages. It may be less widely understood that apparently prolific authors of fiction also use ghost writers. Under such circumstances the author’s name becomes a brand with uncertain levels of involvement from the person who shares that name. Again, a student may consciously or unconsciously draw parallels.

The visibility of pervasive ghosting

The grounds for circling around the topic of ghostwriting here are less to do with the simple fact that it happens, but more to do with the fact that people know that it happens. This may simply be because the media chose to publicise some of the examples cited above, judging them to be in the public interest. For example the popular science writer Ben Goldacre has written forcefully about the HRT scandal.

However, there is public interest in other cases not because they are professionally scandalous (as with HRT), but because the individuals involved live engaging lives. So, this pervasive presence of ghost authorship in modern culture becomes most visible when exercised by, and for, celebrities. For example, the act of ghosting an autobiography becomes a story in itself when the commissioning person is very well-known – such as Damien Hirst.  The story may be even more newsworthy when Hirst borrows his ghostwriter from another celebrity – in this case, Keith Richards.

Similarly, the practice of ghosting a novel will be made visible in popular media when the offending ‘author’ is someone well known: perhaps for modelling or reality TV careers or as high-profile entertainers. The rise of social media has also served to highlight the ambiguity of authority attached to the voices encountered there. In this way, the public is led to recognise that postings on Instagram or postings on Twitter are not composed by the owners of the accounts to which they are attached.

These practices may be judged benign, insofar as readers believe that what is said in ghosting is endorsed by the person being spoken for. Nevertheless, there may be something culturally corrosive about ventriloquising in this way. It casts an ambiguity around notions of authority and sincerity as we engage with acts of communication. Moreover, this is ambiguity that goes beyond the specific illustrations discussed here and includes such contemporary phenomena as the paid endorsements of internet ‘influencers’.

Ghosting is not a new cultural practice. And the point being made here is not that it is intrinsically unwelcome. The point is more that it has become so pervasive – and so much more often concealed. When adopting the voice of another is strongly normalised in the student’s overarching cultural experience, then it is likely to be more easily imported into the study-world. In that sense the practice is one potential aspect of the study-world that underpins the possibility of social plagiarism.

Author: Charles Crook

Charles is a Professor of ICT and Education. He is the former Director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at Nottingham and is a developmental psychologist by background. After research at Cambridge, Brown and Strathclyde Universities, he lectured in Psychology at Durham University and was Reader in Psychology at Loughborough University. Much of this work implicates new technology. He was a founder member of the European Society for Developmental Psychology and was formerly editor of the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.