Ghostwriting is when an author writes a work and attributes it to someone else.

Isn't this reverse-plagiarism (someone taking credit for someone else's work, but with permission)? I'm not sure it happens in academia a lot, but I've seen instances where a professor "ghostwrites" course notes for another professor. Actually those notes are really bad and it seems like he doesn't want to take the hit of delivering the course himself. Instead he ghostwrites it for other people. It seems wrong to me.

2 Answers 2


Unattributed work in academia is generally considered unethical. In my own experience, however, I believe that I've come across very few instances of actual ghostwriting where the real author was unnamed. Normally, at least some acknowledgment is called for, either in an editor's note or introduction.

Now, to answer Mankoff's comeent below, by "unattributed work," it can be okay for authors to choose to remain anonymous, if they feel it is in their best interests to do so. However, to take someone else's work and to pass it off as their own is clearly unethical behavior. However, from an ethics standpoint, even if the ghost author is asked about attribution and declines, the "named" author should not attempt to claim sole credit for the work. Instead, the author should make some sort of reference to those who assisted in the preparation of the manuscript. Otherwise, they're passing off someone else's work as their own.

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    I wonder: it is ethical (though probably not very common) to pay for proofreading or translation services, or to pay for someone to make graphs, figures or other visualization work for you… what is fundamentally different about writing that it wouldn't be ethical to hire someone to write papers for you? (I mean, just the writing part, based on a draft of your results and discussions, or something like that) Where is the limit?
    – F'x
    Oct 10, 2012 at 16:09
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    There are many anonymous academic publications. See, for example, "author:anonymous" search on Google Scholar scholar.google.com/scholar?q=author%3Aanonymous
    – mankoff
    Oct 10, 2012 at 17:54
  • @mankoff That search returns mostly results on rsc.org that correspond to editorials of journals of the Royal Society of Chemistry… even though they don't have the metadata properly given in the HTML, you can look at the PDF and the articles are signed by their authors
    – F'x
    Oct 10, 2012 at 19:18
  • @F'x you are right. However, I do know of some famous highly-cited anonymous publications. I cannot find them in my reference library at the moment. Regardless, your edit clarifies your stance on this.
    – mankoff
    Oct 10, 2012 at 20:09

In general, I would say that ghost writing does not constitute plagiarism and using one is not an academically dishonest. A scientific writer who is not an expert in a particular field can convert research notes into a manuscript. These words are not the contribution to the field, but rather the research they encompass. While converting the notes to prose could be viewed as worthy of authorship, I think it is also reasonable to say that it is not. If the writer and the researcher agree that the writers assistance is not worthy of authorship, then there is no problem.

While I do not use a ghost writer, I see this as no different then employing a programmer to write code to control my experiment, an RA to collect the data from the experiment, a graphic designer to create the figures, and a statistician to run the statistics, all of which I do do to varying degrees. To me the contribution is the design of the experiment and the analysis and interpretation of the results. I acknowledge these individuals to varying degrees in the manuscripts, but rarely give authorship.

The ICMJE guidelines for authorship are

Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3.

A ghost writer does not meet conditions 1 or 3.

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    If an unlisted person is responsible for the production of the actual text of the final publication, then they have a right to be an author. An author could choose to give up this claim willingly, but I don't see a real advantage for the "true" author to do so that doesn't create an ethics issue somewhere along the way.
    – aeismail
    Oct 10, 2012 at 19:04
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    @aeismail I disagree, I added a link to the ICMJE guidelines which make it clear, in my opinion, that a ghost writer should not be an author.
    – StrongBad
    Oct 10, 2012 at 19:38
  • @aeismail The job done by a hired person is more or less that of a transcript writer; like in medical or legal transcriptions. But to the question OP is asking, the answer is; It is unethical in the part of the professor who actually uses these course notes without sufficient attribution (as long as he/she is not hiring the other professor to prepare the notes). Oct 11, 2012 at 5:10
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    If you have hired somebody to write a paper for you, then that fact needs to be acknowledged in some manner. Failure to do so—even as an acknowledgment—is still unethical behavior, because you are presenting someone else's work as your own!
    – aeismail
    Oct 11, 2012 at 9:20
  • Frankly, if the ghost writer has done their job, the author of the study may not meet condition 2. I look forward to an era of authorless papers.
    – Fomite
    Oct 13, 2012 at 0:40

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