I had an interesting phone call this morning. The caller had experienced something the other day that was quite bothering him. Did I know what he could do?
He was on a train, and recognized the two gentlemen sitting across from him. One was a professor who is rather well-known in his field and sits on the board of an important company. He began to speak with his friend as if the two of them were alone in front of the fireplace in the privacy of his home.
It seems the professor moonlights as a ghostwriter for a Switzerland-based company, writing theses and dissertations not for the money involved, but for the thrill of it. He assured his friend that he faithfully reports his income, the pittance that they pay their writers, to the tax office. He even wrote a doctoral dissertation for a colleague who had done all of his experimental work, but was too busy to sit down and write the thesis.
"And I always make sure to include a reference to one of my own papers in every paper I write," he beamed, apparently rather pleased with himself. His friend was only concerned with the legality of what he was doing, not the moral issue: Is it okay for a professor (who is supposed to be teaching students good scientific practices) to be a ghostwriter as well?
Indeed, it is legal to be a ghostwriter. The person who is cheating is the one who submits ghostwritten work as their own. And there really is no recourse here, as I told my caller. One can't call the dean of the professor's school, there is no evidence at hand. I am not aware of any universities in Germany that expressly forbid their professors to participate in ghostwriting. But it is indeed ethically highly problematic to be on both sides of the fence, as it were. Pretty much the only thing we can do is to discuss openly and widely what scientific misconduct is and how and why we avoid it.
Any ideas, readers? What would you have done, if you had overheard this conversation?
If you read German, here's an article about one of these services that boasts writers with doctorates and even professors.