Written by the hands of a ghost

The honour of being a renowned researcher is linked to a mass of publications. Publish or perish they say. Yet publishing is a very time-consuming work and perhaps the topic of ghost-writing should be discussed in this context.

A ghostwriter is a professional writer who is paid to write books, articles, reports, or texts that are officially credited to another person. Mozart for instance is a well-known example of a musical ghostwriter for his patrons. In Academia, ghost-writing threatens the academic world and its honour.

What are types of academic ghost-writing? How do universities try to prevent it? How do agencies exploit the pressure on academics to publish by offering ghost-writing services in a twilighted zone of legacy? Let’s examine.

Types of Academic Ghost-writing
There are two types of academic ghost-writing that have been established in academic circles. First, sometimes, research assistants or PhD students write entire research articles and conferences presentations for their professors  and do not receive credit for their work. Other academics do not prepare presentations for lectures and seminars, rather they have their students do that.  Sadly, students are surely conscious of this phenomenon yet pursue to conform.

Secondly, legitimizing their own inability to create a research paper, as their supervisors might do the same, the students engage in the very same behaviour. Due to tense deadlines and an enormous work overload, some see themselves forced to engage in the illegal behaviour. This is the niche where ghost-writing agencies have established themselves. They promise the student to write their manuscript in exchange for remuneration. The responsibility, how else could it be, lies on the students’ side. Ghost-writing agencies deliver their manuscript and if the student uses it without any correction, they claim to only having given advice to the student.

Ghostwriting agencies
Agencies publishing their announcements on various university websites, promise to help in the chaos of essays, research papers and theses. Yet, it’s illegal, not to mention extremely expensive. Enough students seem to need ghost-writers so much that the ghost-writing agencies can charge as much as 10.000€  for a creation of a dissertation.

Who are those ghost creating academic papers?
Most agencies employ ghost-writers who have a high academic degree. It is most likely that they are doctors or even professors having either made negative experiences with university or needing some extra income. Since an agency can earn up to 70 Euros creating one page of a manuscript, ghost-writing seems a quite lucrative job for some.

Control by university
If you submit a ghost-written manuscript and sign the declaration of academic honesty while handing it in, you have committed a punishable act that can be prosecuted by legal remedies. For example, as a student, you can be exmatriculated from your university. Universities mostly require a printed and an electronic version of student’s thesis and dissertation, since they can access special data bases comparing the student’s manuscript to already published articles to prevent plagiarism. Particularly since the political affaires around plagiarism major attention is drawn to it. Discovering that a university has awarded a degree for someone for a ghost-written thesis diminishes the institutions reputation considerably.

Still, how to decrease ghost-writing?



As being part of EFPSA’s JEPS team, Sina Scherer works as JEPS Bulletin’s editor and is currently enrolled in the last year of her Master programme in Work and Organizational Psychology at the Westfälische Wilhelmsuniversität Münster. Her fields of interest cover the areas of Intercultural Psychology, Personality and Organizational Psychology such as Health Psychology. 

Sina Scherer

Sina Scherer

Sina Scherer, studying at University of Münster, Germany, and University of Padova, Italy. I have previously worked as JEPS Bulletin Editor and am active in a NMUN project simulating the political work of the United Nations as voluntary work. I am interested in cognitive neuroscience and intercultural psychology, anthropology and organizational psychology (aspects of work-life balance, expatriation).

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  • The subject of ghost writing will remain subject of debate. But why should it be expected that a good researcher is also a good writer? My professor does not like my style as information density is too high to easily absorb it. If I let a ghost writer edit that to a more digestible piece and I check it again for being correct, where is the harm?

  • Ivan Flis

    Well, the question is – what do we consider the core skills of a researcher? Scientific writing is usually among it. I think that you can usually mechanize for this by working with other people – somebody does the stats, another person the research design, and somebody does the writing.

    But at the end of the day, I think that a well rounded researcher has to be able to write well. It’s just part of the job, so to say.

  • I hear what you say, and I agree it is a matter of definition. If one aspires a career as a researcher, that is fine. But in my part of the world (can’t tell for the rest), the highest level of education is scientific, although a very small percentage of graduates will actually become a researcher.
    So why would one be obliged to have a full set of “researcher skills” if the system only offers you to have a scientific degree even if we know you’re not going to be a professional researcher?

    Having said that, we also know that for many professions it is acceptable to delegate parts of ones task to someone more gifted in that area while maintaining the intellectual ownership of thoughts, plans, visions, ideas, objectives and the management of these. Take the example of a secretary who writes (and often improves) a letter being dictated by the person he or she works with? We do not consider that “illegal” or not “right”.
    Writing is a profession by itself, why would we potentially deprive science of new knowledge simply because the researcher is just not a good writer?

    I am not saying tat I am not a good writer, I have written quite a number of articles as a free-lance journalist and have written instruction manuals. I am sure I would be fine writing for a “popular-scientific” magazine It is just that scientific writing is different. I am losing time and motivation having to re-write over and over again. I wanted to do research in order to get a degree, not become a writer. I can write the input, why not let a good scientific editor turn that into the desired format?I yet need to meet that editor, seems they’re not in the yellow pages ;)

  • Ivan Flis

    “But in my part of the world (can’t tell for the rest), the highest level of education is scientific, although a very small percentage of graduates will actually become a researcher.”

    Well, yes, the same is in my ‘part of the world’. But that’s an artifact and a problem of our education system, not a problem of science at large. If you are not educated to become a researcher, you should not be expected to excel at scientific writing. You should be able to do it, for sure (as any scientifically educated person), but not on a level required for a researcher. The problem is when the education system isn’t sensitive to the actual job market, where a minority ends up actually working in science.

    I think, from a current perspective, a well rounded researcher has to be able to write. Does that mean everybody is the same at it? No. But there has to be a minimum that is satisfactory. Does that mean you will get published in the most renowned journals? Maybe not. But the same is for researchers who don’t know how to create good research designs, methodology, don’t fulfill the ethical minimum, [insert another objective reason why some research is sub-par and other is excellent].

  • Spencer Thorpe

    Thank you a lot for the article! I like the most the part about types of academic ghostwriting. You also said, “Agencies publishing their announcements on various university websites, promise to help in the chaos of essays, research papers, and theses. Yet, it’s illegal, not to mention extremely expensive”. I don’t think that students, who just don’t want to do anything or to study accurately and, as a result, create every paper with the help of ghost writers are right. But what should do students, who work while studying or don’t know what to start with or have any problems and so on and so forth? In these situations, I think that hiring a thesis ghost writer isn’t such a bad idea, is it?