The practice of commissioning an anonymous writer, or ghostwriter, to do one’s writing has been employed for a number of famous books and papers in the past, including official presidential biographies. Examples of ghostwriting exist in almost every field – from politics to literature to scientific research. Ghostwriting is an industry of its own; thousands of people make their living every year by writing anonymously. Although ghostwriting has been historically accepted, it has been undergoing some criticism recently that it is considered a form of plagiarism.
to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one's own
to use (another's production) without crediting the source
to commit literary theft
to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source
Based on these definitions, the concept of ghostwriting at its base level is plagiarism. After all, the whole point of ghostwriting is to hide credit from the real author and instead recognize another source.
However, there are several factors based on different methods of ghostwriting that makes the subject not so black and white.
Depending on the industry and specific project, ghostwriters can have varying levels of involvement. Some ghostwriters will do everything from start-to-finish including research, writing and editing. Some ghostwriters will come in after the research phase and write the bulk of the work, whereas some are only employed to edit and rewrite a draft.
The ghostwriter’s level of involvement is directly proportional to the publishing “author’s” involvement. In some cases the person or company who commissioned the ghostwriting was actually deeply involved. In other cases they really just put their name on the book or paper.
In addition, ghostwriters can also be acknowledged to varying degrees by the author or publisher. Some are given a byline and others are completely anonymous.
Although there is a grey-scale for ghostwriting, it really comes down to this question: if proper and legal consent is given to leave out the ghostwriter’s name, is it still plagiarism?
One industry where the subject of ghostwriting is particularly controversial is medical writing. It is common practice for scientific, technical and medical (STM) companies to commission anonymous authors to produce materials for them. Some of these materials are extremely controversial because they involve scientific research and publication that is clearly directed with a bias towards the promotion of a product.
What if a piece of ghostwritten research that was clearly biased to influence a drug’s approval ended up hurting people?
Concerning questions like this have lead many within the academia and government oversight committees to prompt for a crackdown on ghostwriting. In addition, researchers and universities are taking more heat for letting large volumes of ghostwritten materials get published right under their noses.
The federal government is also now considering some cases of ghostwriting to be unethical and grounds for research misconduct. Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, wrote:
“A case of ghostwriting involving NIH-funded researchers may be appropriate for consideration as a case of plagiarism; i.e., the appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit; or fabrication, i.e., making up data or results and recording or reporting them.”
Although ghostwriting is technically plagiarism under strict definition, it isn’t treated the same in most cases. Within certain sectors, like STM industries, due to the potential repercussions, ghostwriting is becoming a larger issue in regards to publication. Over the next several years, with the rising attention to plagiarism and scholarly misconduct, we may see this trend affect other professions as well and whether it will continue to be an accepted practice...or not.