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The Ethics of Ghostwriting

Every few months I receive an email inquiry asking me if I would ghostwrite a term paper or dissertation.

My answer is always no. To me, that’s totally unethical.

But why?

What makes it unethical for me to accept a fee to write an essay for a graduate student who owes a faculty member an assignment, but it would be fine for me to accept a fee to ghostwrite a speech for the president of the university to deliver to the faculty?

Ghostwriters are writers who earn fees but none of the credit for the work produced. The client, the principal, hires the ghostwriter as a consultant to produce a book, speech, or other editorial product, for which the client will take full credit. In legal terms, the ghostwriter produces a “work for hire.” The copyright for the work goes to the client.

Some people may be uncomfortable with this arrangement, but there is nothing unethical about it.

Commercial Ghostwriting

The client assumes all responsibility—commercially, morally, legally—for every word published. The ghostwriter provides editorial services that assist the client in conceptualizing, wordsmithing, and editing the work.

The work in all important aspects is the client’s. It’s his story and accomplishments; it’s her ideas and values. There’s a legitimate transfer of content. The client provides the ideas. The ghostwriter provides the heavy lifting.

While the agreement between the client and the ghostwriter may be confidential, it describes a commercial transaction that is professional, straight-forward, and, if necessary, enforceable in a court of law. In almost all cases, the role of the ghostwriter is publicly acknowledged in some way. If the relationship is revealed, the client may be embarrassed but no laws or violations of public policy result.

Academic Ghostwriting

So what’s different about me writing for a student who needs editorial services in order to complete an academic assignment? Here are three reasons, each of which fails an ethical test.

First, there’s no transfer of ideas. The student client contributes no ideas. He or she looks to the ghostwriter to provide all the content in an attempt to demonstrate that the content is, in fact, the product of the student’s own work.

Ethical test 1: the relationship is deceptive from beginning to end and requires the ghostwriter’s complicity.

Second, there’s no accountability. Students are desperate to hide that they received any assistance. Generally, intermediaries are involved to ensure there’s no direct connection between the client and the ghostwriter. If the relationship is revealed, there are immediate consequences for the student who has violated specific agreements with the university.

Ethical test 2: the relationship is intended to stay hidden.

Third, the agreements are rarely professional or straightforward and never enforceable. A student client who sued to get her money back because her ghostwritten essay failed to receive the desired grade would be laughed out of court. Or worse.

Ethical test 3: the relationship violates a tenant of public policy.

Finally, ghostwriting academic term papers fails the ethical test articulated by Immanuel Kant: Would you want to live in a world where everybody did it?

In other words, would you want to live in a world where every commercial pilot, pediatrician, or elevator inspector had satisfied their academic obligations, not by actually doing the work, but by hiring ghostwriters?

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