Monday, March 2, 2015

A Professorial Ghostwriter

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.


  1. What would I have done?

    Well, it depends on the relation to the professor and the research field.

    If I was an active researcher in the field (or even worse, a PhD student), I'd probably get as far away from this person as possible (professionally speaking) and forget about the incident. Possibly I'd lose faith in humanity and leave academia.

    Now, if I knew I was not going to be dependent on the goodwill of that person ever again...

    Did you know that every mobile phone has an audio recording feature that is trivial to use? Also, did you know that it is possible to send out mails with audio files attached anonymously, if you know how to do it? Guess what I like to do, "just for the thrill of it"....

  2. Well, anonymous, in Germany it is against the law to record people without their knowledge and permission.

  3. Indeed, it is, although I am a bit unsure if that isn't a law which everybody breaks without knowing it. Every iPhone with Siri enabled does record everything in its surroundings for audio processing purposes without ever asking anybody.

    Oh well, it is a bit depressing, but it seems that the Professor can flaunt his exploits in public without any repercussions. At least I would never dare to accuse a Professor of such a thing without an audio recording or an email trace.

    IMO this kind of devalues the lower level academic degrees (the ones where you don't have to make the thesis public).

    Anyway. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for what you are doing. Ordinary people have the tendency to want to believe that the academic plagiarism problem is insignificant, and your blog is a fantastic resource to point these doubters to.

    Best regards,
    Anonymous person