Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Ghost-writing run amok

Back in 2004, when the Ogletree and Tribe plagiarism matters were in the news, SARA RIMER wrote in the New York Times:

After Professor Tribe, one of the nation's leading constitutional law scholars, publicly expressed sympathy for Professor Ogletree, and raised questions on a legal affairs Web site about the "larger problem" of "writers, political office seekers, judges and other high government officials passing off the work of others as their own," The Weekly Standard reported that Professor Tribe's 1985 book about the selection of Supreme Court justices, "God Save This Honorable Court," (Random House) had "perhaps an 'uncomfortable reliance' " on a book by an emeritus University of Virginia professor, Henry J. Abraham.

The superficial issue was plagiarism, particularly as to ghost writers who plagiarized. The deeper issue was the use by academics of other people to write their material. The last two lines of the Rimer article got to the core problem:

Managed books, Professor Gardner said, are a recent phenomenon in which some academics rely on assistants to help them produce books, in some cases allowing the assistants to write first drafts.

"Scholarship - the core activity of the university - cannot be delegated to assistants," Professor Gardner said.

When mistakes happen, the academic can try to blame the underling. Ogletree blamed two assistants. [from Rimer: "The error, [Ogletree] said, had occurred in his rush to meet a final deadline, when a pair of research assistants inserted the material into a draft of his manuscript and accidentally dropped the quotation marks and attribution."] More recently, Nayernia blamed a post-doc. [Obliquely, an assistant tried to shoulder blame for Mark Lemley's "Gary Boone invented the integrated circuit" misstatement.] At the end of the day, scholarship can't be delegated, as Gardner correctly noted.

Now, fast forward to the year 2010, and see where ghostwriting is headed. The article Ghostwriters in China drawing business...and flak illustrates that ghostwriting is profitable, and not limited to academics. From the article:

One student in the central Wuhan city, surnamed Chen, told a local newspaper that the money he spent on ghostwriting fees was well worth it: The academic paper that cost him 1,500 yuan helped him win a scholarship worth 10,000 yuan a year.

Some graduate students even pay for their entire theses, which they need in order to graduate, to be written for them. The Sunday Times found that a 20,000-word master's thesis costs between 3,500 and 5,000 yuan.


Professors and white-collar workers are also known to approach ghostwriting firms to help them write papers to secure promotions. The latter group usually consists of civil servants or employees of state-owned firms; some government agencies appraise employees partly through the academic papers they have written.


Mr Liu shrugs off the objections to his chosen sideline.

'I don't see ghostwriting as unethical,' he said. 'People don't always have time to do everything by themselves, so sometimes they pay to get some help. There's nothing wrong with that.'

When the employer hires a candidate, thinking the candidate wrote an article which the candidate did not write, there is the presence of fraud upon the employer. It is unethical to pass off work done by another as one's own, knowing that the recipient is deceived and that the recipient acts on that deception.

An interesting question is "how" different is what is going on in China, as to ghost writing, from what was going on at the Harvard Law School?


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