Open Thread – Ghostwriters, academic integrity, and the Shadow Scholar

The academic blogosphere is bursting with discussion over this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education: The Shadow Scholar. A professional academic ghostwriter spills the beans on how his business works, who buys his services, and how the system enables it. Go ahead and give it a read, we’ll be right here.

So what do educators do in this situation? Is the author right that the problem lies in the structure of academia? How do you catch something like this? Even if you suspected this kind of cheating, how would you prove it?


Damn them all, indeed.


  1. Christie · November 17, 2010

    Damn. I don’t really even know how to respond to this – it kinda makes me feel sick to my stomach to think about.

  2. Southern Fried Scientist · November 17, 2010

    A further question – On whom does the burden of morality lie? The students? The institutions? The ghostwriters? Some combination of everyone?

  3. WhySharksMatter · November 18, 2010

    Wow. Just…wow.

    This “hired gun”, whatever his ethical issues, is clearly a brilliant person and a great writer. I wish that there was a better way for our society to use his talents.

    As for blame, I think it goes to everyone.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 18, 2010

      Did we read the same article? While there was a huge amount of insight into the seedy underbelly of academia, the writing was formulaic and repetitive, with a structure that meandered into self-absorbed anecdotes with ambiguous connections. In short, exactly what I would expect from someone who churns out term papers like a factory.

    • WhySharksMatter · November 18, 2010

      I didn’t mean that the article itself was well written, I just think it’s impressive that he’s written decent stuff for so many different fields.

  4. Southern Fried Scientist · November 18, 2010

    I left this comment at another site, but liked it so much I’m putting it here, too. Apologies:

    Anyone else find it really funny that he chose the Count of Monte Cristo for his handle? A man educated in all fields while counting his days in prison, only to emerge as a mysterious noblemen, controlling society? Makes you wonder what Ed Dantes future plans are(and says a lot about what he thinks of himself).

    Maybe he’s plotting his revenge against his old alma matter, probably SUNY Albany, since without a French department, they won’t pick up on the allusion –

  5. wombat · November 18, 2010

    For me the most interesting part turned out to be how many of the comments accused the guy of being a hoaxer. As a writer, I see these ads hiring for these services all the time, so I was surprised anyone doubted him. But despite the commentors who said they’d done similar work and others actually supplying links, there were still skeptics.

    Also as far as the meandering and repetition – yeah, he sure has learned to pad stuff out, just like he said. Do they not have editors over there at the Chronicle?

  6. Alan Dove · November 18, 2010

    Sadly, his little niche is only one corner of this rabbit hole. Google “medical ghostwriting,” and you’ll start plumbing a deeper, more insidious, and much more lucrative version of this activity. Perhaps that will be his next career.

    • Jonathan Badger · November 18, 2010

      Exactly. Medical ghostwriting is a far more serious problem than frat boys weaseling out of a term paper by paying for a paper on Emily Dickinson or something. Those frat boys are just hurting themselves. Medical ghostwriters may actually be killing people.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 18, 2010

      The author claims to have written for med students, nurses, pharmacy students, and seminary students, among others (including educators). This is way bigger than a few frat boys buying essays.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 18, 2010

      Of course, medical ghostwriting is a way bigger deal. Wasn’t it last year that Merck was exposed for not only having pro-Merck pharmaceutical reports ghostwritten, but also having their own journal to publish in.

      As I understand it, there are also “reverse” ghostwriters in medicine – Doctors who will accept a fee to put their name on internally produced company studies.

  7. Mike Lisieski · November 19, 2010

    School should be harder. If somebody with no specialized training in a topic can write something that passes as a thesis, then we aren’t expecting students to be knowledgeable enough in their own fields.

    Especially in undergraduate courses, it needs to be more acceptable to give students frankly hard tests of their knowledge. You can buy a paper, but you can’t (as easily) pay somebody to take a test for you. If grad students can get away with this, their department has failed hard (it could be in many places, but it’s definitely a failure on the part of the department.) Perhaps oral examinations should be more standard for all levels of education. Nobody could orally defend a thesis they hadn’t written.

    That said, I thought he wrote well – or at least smoothly and in an engaging style (I guess he would have to, with his job.)

    You know, this whole thing could be combated by setting up a company that makes online fronts for businesses like these, and then allow schools to subscribe to services where they could receive notifications when the front was contacted by one of their students. It would be relatively easy to do on a low budget – just buy a few thousand domains that are similar to those used by “legitimate” illegitimate ghost-writers and spread links around. It wouldn’t catch everybody, but it would make it riskier. This might be illegal, though.

    • WhySharksMatter · November 19, 2010

      It could be argued that your plan is “entrapment”. I don’t think that argument would win in court, but the mere existence of it may make schools not want to go down that road.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 19, 2010

      I’m concerned with where the line really is. Obviously on one end we have the student who works in complete isolation with no outside help while on the other end we have the student who just buys a completely ghostwritten paper. But what about the middle grounds.

      What about students who discuss the topic and ideas with others before writing, and then incorporates some of those ideas?

      What about students who ask for some proofreading for typos before turning it in?

      What about students who get help with sentence structure and flow from a writing studio?

      What about ESL students who hire a proofreader to clean-up the language?

      What if you’re abysmal at writing and spend weeks seeking out the right resources to help you structure a readable paper?

      What if you’re a fantastic writer with no original thought that seeks out the right resources to create a cogent argument for something?

      The way I see it, there’s two issues at stake here – one is students who can’t write well and the other is students who can’t think well. If education is a process, then both those students should be getting help both in and outside of the classroom. But at what point does ‘help’ become ‘cheating’.

      To that end, I think Dante is right in some regards, the structure of our education system is flawed. The fix shouldn’t be “how to catch cheaters more effectively” (though we should be ever-vigilant) but rather “how to structure the system so that there is less incentive to cheat.” Sadly, at a university wide level, I have no solution for either of those.

    • WhySharksMatter · November 21, 2010

      “What about students who discuss the topic and ideas with others before writing, and then incorporates some of those ideas?

      What about students who ask for some proofreading for typos before turning it in?

      What about students who get help with sentence structure and flow from a writing studio?”

      I actually encourage my students to do all of these things. I even allow them to send me drafts of papers so I can tell them if they are on the right track. I think these are a part of learning how to be a better writer, and are ethically quite distinct from just hiring someone to write a paper for you.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 21, 2010

      Dave, that’s my entire point. Obviously the ghostwriter is the extreme and clearly unethical, but where exactly is the line? At what point does getting extra help become having someone else do the work for you?

  8. Southern Fried Scientist · November 19, 2010

    Another similar article brought to my attention:

    sheds a little more light on this seedy occupation.

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