After reading about paper mills, and knowing that there are companies that offer ghostwriting for bachelor theses, at least in Switzerland and Germany, I asked myself if there are methods to detect ghostwriting. While this kind of service may be acceptable in some domains, in academia, having a ghostwriter may violate principles of scientific integrity. Unlike plagiarism, however, it seems to be much more difficult to find out if someone has a ghostwriter. Nevertheless, is there evidence that would point to it? I can only think of metadata of manuscripts (in case the ghostwriter forgot to clear his traces). I've certainly had students in the past who surprised me with their research paper because it didn't match my impression at all, but of course that's not really an indication.

  • 2
    Why do you think that it doesn't conform to principles of scientific integrity? I'm pretty sure that Stephen Hawking had a lot of help with getting the words on paper. That doesn't imply that the ideas weren't his, of course. What matters is where the ideas come from.
    – Buffy
    Jun 25, 2021 at 14:52
  • 2
    Sure, but I don't think Hawking wasn't transparent on this. I am talking about researchers who are not transparent on this.
    – sophar
    Jun 25, 2021 at 14:59
  • 1
    How much of this do you fear goes on? Why do you think it is a problem worth spending time on? If someone wants to "fake it" metadata isn't going to stop them. Unusual changes in writing style could have many explanations - multiple authors, paper developed over a very long time line, ... Do you have an example of abuse?
    – Buffy
    Jun 25, 2021 at 15:16
  • 1
    Maybe the question is not whether getting a ghost writer is OK, but instead whether that guy should be added as an author of the paper.
    – GEdgar
    Jun 25, 2021 at 15:28
  • 2
    @GEdgar Under the increasingly-popular ICMJE authorship guidelines, to qualify for authorship, an individual has to be involved both in the execution of the research and in the composition of the paper - so in the case I think we're talking about here, no-one would qualify to be listed as an author! I wonder what will happen if/when a paper gets submitted to a journal with a blank author list for this reason. Jun 25, 2021 at 15:50

1 Answer 1


The utility of this answer depends on why you are seeking this information, but this comes from my own experience.

As a student, I was asked to help jog the memory of a researcher on some topics they had been working on in a collaborative project. This involved reading the papers of the collaborators, summarizing them, and figuring out how they all worked together. I wrote this all into one document, emphasized that they were notes only (not polished in any way), and did not give permission to use my work other than its intended use. I later found that the researcher published my work verbatim and claimed it as their own. After raising this issue as far as I could, I found that I was called a "ghostwriter" against my will.

Based on this experience, here are a few remarks:

  • When talking to them, the researcher could not explain the works in any sort of detail other than what I had given them for notes (it had been a while since they had worked on the topic).
  • Some members of the institution are aware that the researcher did not write their own work because I spoke up. This was formally documented.
  • As you noted in the question, metadata revealed that I had written large portions of the document rather than the researcher.
  • My writing style and the researcher's writing style differed considerably (they are not a native English speaker). If you were familiar with their work at all, mine would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Stylometry tools could have been used as well.

If you were looking to detect ghostwriters in students, you could employ a few strategies to help figure it out:

  • Give them an oral component to explain their answers in more detail.
  • Ask them to submit assignments electronically to have a paper trail.
  • Have them submit smaller assignments to reveal their writing style. This would not work if they had a ghostwriter for every assignment.
  • Ok, this covers many aspects of the issue I had thought about but wasn't sure they could really be relevant. Can you explore a little bit more on the metadata, was your name in the word file or something like that?
    – sophar
    Jul 4, 2021 at 15:03

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .