By David A. Tomar
During my decade-long career as an academic ghostwriter, I used to tell people that I’d have no idea how to make a living as a writer without the Internet.
I really tried, too. Print was not only tough to break into in the early 2000s. It was also slowly dying.
But the Internet was a Wild West where a guy with a pioneer spirit and a less-than-law-abiding outlook could find a home.
I was a freelance writer by intent but a ghostwriter by trade.
I wrote for students at every level of education and in nearly every subject imaginable. I learned quite a bit over 10 years of total immersion in research and composition.
I learned about military intelligence strategy. I learned about tire manufacturing. I learned that managing an airport is extremely complicated. I learned that I don’t much enjoy studying state budgetary law.
Every day I learned about something new. Usually, based on the number of deadlines I had on my calendar at any given time, I might learn three or four or five new things in a day. I was like the student-equivalent of a substitute teacher, bouncing manically from subject to subject without ever learning enough to be an expert in any one area.
There were two constants, however—two things I learned more about every single day that I did the job—the field of education and the essay mill business. Naturally, the latter could not exist without the former (and though this is a topic for another discussion, the latter is almost certainly a symptom of systemic flaws in the structure and culture of the former).
Though I learned much about education, it was decidedly from an outsider’s point of view. By contrast, I was an insider to an industry that many people didn’t even know existed. I admit, it’s not exactly Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but I learned quite a bit about the subterranean industry’s inner workings.
If, as an educator, one wishes to confront ghostwriting, to deter students from employing the service, to detect incidents where students have used such a service, and ultimately to rid the classroom of fraudulent material, one must know the source.
Ghostwriting is a global, web-enabled cottage industry. In order to understand this industry, one must accept that ghostwriting provides a real commodity and that this commodity makes ghostwriting a real marketplace with real industry norms. It is with this in mind that I offer the following overview and analysis of the academic ghostwriting industry.
This account expands on a presentation that I delivered via webcast at 2014’s annual conference of the International Center for Academic Integrity (ICAI) with support from plagiarism-detection provider, Turnitin.com.
Here, I’ll explain how the ghostwriting business works, who is responsible for its success, and why it continues to be a viable industry.
My hope is that this account will serve as a resource for educators who wish to better understand the ghostwriting industry.
(For a companion piece by David A. Tomar, see Detecting and Deterring Ghostwritten Papers: A Guide to Best Practices.)
Defining Academic Ghostwriting
A discussion on academic ghostwriting requires some definition. This is because academic ghostwriting differs from other, more commonly accepted forms of ghostwriting. Indeed, the ghostwriter is an invisible presence in political speech-making, corporate PR, medical research, and the absolutely booming field of online content production.
These outlets are perceived with varying degrees of hostility, indifference, and acceptance. On one end of the spectrum, there is justifiable and widespread concern among academics that medical ghostwriting undermines the credibility of published research and cheapens the alleged qualifications of practicing medical researchers.
On the other end of the spectrum, nobody at all seems concerned that the Internet is increasingly populated by generic and authorless-blog entries, which professional ghostwriters churn out endlessly for all manner of business, large and small.
In other words, ghostwriting holds a well-defined role in the worlds of composition and speaking, a place where an unseen writer is compensated for work that will never bear his name. In the vast majority of these contexts, we don’t even stop to question whether or not this behavior is acceptable. It just is.
This is symptomatic of a fact that drives the academic ghostwriting world as well. That is, the average person who does not write would do nearly anything to avoid it. In fact, most people who don’t write would rather knowingly contract malaria than spend a week working on an essay. The very idea of stringing together a few coherent sentences can be a nightmare for many, even those who have risen to prestigious and challenging positions on the corporate, political, or celebrity ladders.
Pricenomics explains that “In academia, professors come up with research ideas and analyze results, but research assistants and graduate students write the actual paper describing the outcome. Business executives drive the direction of projects but leave underlings to research and write reports that bear the executives’ names. Marketplaces called content mills allow companies to cheaply fill their websites with ghostwritten articles published under the name of a staff member. And nearly every book authored by a celebrity or politician is ghostwritten by a professional writer.”
As a society, we understand and accept that ghostwriting plays a part in helping public figures effectively represent themselves in a boardroom, press conference, or awards ceremony.
But academic ghostwriting inhabits a world of its own, thriving as an underground player in an industry that neither wants it nor has any idea of how to get rid of it.
Academic ghostwriting, which we will refer to as “ghostwriting” tout court throughout this account, differs from commonly accepted forms of ghostwriting because its intent is to defraud. Where we might make the argument that other forms of ghostwriting are designed to frame the thoughts, ideas, research, and reputation of those whose names will grace the byline, academic ghostwriting exists with the strict intent of misleading the final audience.
Said audience is a cross-section of teachers, professors, TAs, and graders. The academic ghostwriting service exists for the sole purpose of providing written material to paying students who will claim the work as their own. In the context of education and within the confines of the Honor System, the academic ghostwriter is an accessory to this fraud.
Later in this account, we’ll discuss the legal implications of this position. But from a strictly conceptual standpoint, the academic ghostwriter knows that the work he or she is doing will be used to mislead educators, defraud educational institutions, and provide students with the tools to be credited for work they haven’t themselves completed.
Another quick note as we define terms. We may also refer throughout the account to the Paper Mill or Essay Mill Business. The actual definition of a Paper or Essay Mill, like ghostwriting, is a little more expansive than the way we use it here. The term Paper or Essay Mill may refer to a website that provides custom-written material through a ghostwriter or it may refer to a website that gives customers access to a database of previously completed works that can either be purchased individually or accessed through dues-paying membership.
We are not concerned with the latter form of cheating here, primarily because plagiarism-detection software has made it rather easy to diagnose cheating when it occurs this way. In fact, it wouldn’t take much more than a Google search of key phrases to reveal that a student had purchased a previously used assignment from a Paper Mill.
It bears noting that there is a great deal of overlap between services. Many ghostwriting companies offer their users access to libraries of “Free Essays.” More than any other function, this content serves to draw potential ghostwriting customers via search engines.
Therefore, when we discuss Paper Mills in this account, it is with strict reference to those which produce custom-written papers rather than those that simply catalogue and resell old, readily detectable essays.
The Homework Racket: Overview
Academic ghostwriting isn’t legitimate but it isn’t illegal either. It exists in an online limbo where free enterprise reigns supreme. Every ghostwriting company will have its own unique way of branding and presenting services. Some may call it homework help. Some may call it research assistance. Some companies will simply call it cheating and offer brazen language describing their willingness to conspire to that end.
What a given company decides to call its product, however, is little more than branding. The phrasing depends on the company’s intent—whether to present a legitimate academic face or the face of a knowing conspirator. Regardless of its face, each company is actively, knowingly, and, often, successfully marketing and selling ghostwritten custom papers.
According to Plagiarsm.org, leading academic integrity expert Donald McCabe of Rutgers University surveyed 24,000 students at 70 high schools on the subject of cheating. Sixty-four percent of respondents admitted to cheating on a test, 58 percent admitted to plagiarism, and 95 percent said they participated in some form of cheating, whether on a test, essay, or homework assignment.
Dystopian futurists will also probably take pleasure in knowing that sheer technology-enabled accessibility has made methods of cheating easier to attempt and harder to detect. According to Plagiarism.org, one out of three high school students admitted to plagiarizing with help from the Internet.
But before we get too worked up about the rapid advance of technology and the imminent decay of human morality, we should also acknowledge that the pressures are greater, the stakes are higher, and the expenses substantially more onerous for students today than for previous generations. These conditions inform motives for cheating to which students just a few generations removed may not be able to relate.
As we consider the nature of the business, the kinds of students who are most likely to employ ghostwriting, and the kinds of people most likely to supply the commodity, we must approach the discussion with balance. To understand each participant’s motives through a practical prism, rather than a moral one, is not to absolve him of the ethical violations in question. It is to afford us all a better understanding of the factors that allow the ghostwriting business to thrive.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many ghostwriting companies are in operation today. Though ghostwriting isn’t illegal, it is, in the parlance of our times, shady. This means that while companies are readily visible, their location, ownership, and contact information often are not.
The easiest way to find a ghostwriting service is to google any permutation of the following words or phrases: “essay help,” “homework help,” “term paper help,” “cheating,” “paper-writing,” “custom papers,” and yes, even “papper writing.” As to the last of these, companies like Essay Box wisely include this and other misspellings common among the clientele in their SEO tags.
For the purposes of this review (and Appendix B, which offers a comprehensive list of the most readily visible paper-writing companies in operation), we begin by using the phrase “Term Paper Help” to initiate a Google Search.
In the first page of search results, Google yields three Top-Bound sponsored links, five sidebar links and 10 web results. Of those, we found two broken links, two sites offering tutoring services, one offering online classes, one providing plagiarism detection software, one offering tips on how to write a paper, one providing an exposé on paper mills, and no fewer than 10 academic ghostwriting services.
Through 20 Google search pages, at 10 entries a page, I was able to visit more than 140 unique, original, and operational ghostwriting websites. Countless duplicate entries also filled these pages. A cosmetic sweep of, and visit to, each of these links reveals that there is a broad marketplace where a wide variety of vendors make themselves readily available and appealing to select, target buyers.
The Google search also reveals that, at least when using phrases like “term paper help,” students are more interested in procuring ghostwriting services than in procuring actual “help” such as tutoring, writing tips, or editing.
But just how many students are using these services? A 2013 article in the Times Higher Education confirms that no encompassing research has ever been conducted to determine this. Two professors out of Birmingham City University (BCU) in the U.K. studied a large sampling of Essay Mill websites between 2005 and 2013 and observed roughly 19,000 attempts at contracted cheating.
They concede that these findings are merely the tip of the iceberg and, from personal experience, I tend to agree. This figure sounds quite low indeed. As the producer of over 4000 essays myself between 2000 and 2010, I can tell you that the BCU findings reflect a relatively minuscule sample and they also illustrate just how difficult it is to obtain a clear view of the prevalence of Essay Mills.
The article provides somewhat more instructive data through its interviews with personnel from All Answers.com and its subsidiary UK Essays. In 2005, the company’s CEO claimed that the UK-based All Answers was turning roughly £200 million a year. The company’s head of business development notes that ghostwriters working for UK Essays completed 11,470 essays in 2012 alone.
This strikes me as probable.
As noted above, Appendix B lists several hundred operational ghostwriting sites. Among them, the aforementioned UK Essays may be the most successful. Alexa.com, which provides metrics for web traffic, ranks the aforementioned ghostwriting service as the 21,881st most popular site on the web globally, up 9,264 spots from just three months ago (a fact that we can attribute to school being in session for exactly three months now).
According to Alexa.com, 17.5 percent of the site’s visitors come from the U.S., 15.2 percent from India, and 14.9 percent from the U.K.
Unfortunately, site metrics are decidedly limited or sparse for many ghostwriting services. This makes it difficult to measure the impact of what appear to be industry leaders. Based on the way that users respond to Google searches, we can presume that the first entries that show up in the search represent among the most successful entities in the business. The first to appear after, again, typing “term paper help,” are My Paper Writer, Custom Papers, My Paper Written, Term Papers Writer, and Paper Help.
Search engines can help us to gain a superficial sense of how broad-based the Essay Mill business is. As Alexa.com points out with regard to UK Essays, the vast majority of its visitors—49.5 percent—arrive at the site through Google.com or a country-specific variation thereupon. Therefore, Google can provide us with a readily usable knowledge of the most prevalent companies in operation. Assume that if you can’t find them using Google, then neither can customers. These companies, therefore, don’t matter.
That said, the industry does have a few layers hidden beneath these search engine results. The custom paper network provides one of these layers. In many cases, one company will serve as an umbrella for a syndicate of paper-writing companies.
The umbrella company will employ a team of independently contracted writers. Individual websites will join these syndicates and become part of a network whose members shares this pool of writers. Consequently, each order that comes through a network member’s website will automatically become part of a bank of assignments accessible to the writer pool.
For instance, Term Paper Sites functions as an umbrella for a network of subsidiary sites. When an order is placed at any of these sites, the writers contracted by Term Paper Sites will be commissioned to complete the work. Subsidiary sites, in this case, include Lots Of Essays, Direct Essays, MegaEssays, Custom Papers, Netessays, ChuckIII’s Free Essays, My Term Papers.com, College Term Papers.com, and Planet Papers.
In addition to matching heavy demand with a limited supply of writers, this strategy helps to create the impression of brand differentiation when, in fact, all products comes from a single source.
Brand differentiation also plays into a broader discussion of the ghostwriting industry. In fact, brand differentiation suggests that paper-writing companies are sensitive to the various demographics that comprise their customer base.
There are companies, for instance, that cater to the student who is somehow still hazy on the definition of cheating. To wit, Bio Diesel University is a blog which explains that “We are proud of our team consisting of professional academic freelance writers, dissertation and thesis writing experts and top notch editors and proofreaders. Our editorial team works day and night to create easy-to-follow and helpful college guides and manuals.”
Consequently, Bio Diesel University provides links to three “Legit Academic Resources”: a tutorial on essay-writing from an actual college and two custom essay-writing services. In addition to its tenuous grasp on the meaning of the word “legit,” I also have a sneaking suspicion that Bio Diesel may not be a real university.
This approach feeds into a strategy of impression management that is common throughout the industry. A great many paper-writing sites feature inspiring pictures of fresh-faced youngsters grasping diplomas, giggling together in libraries, or exiting buildings with Roman columns.
This promotes the impression that the Essay Mill is merely another academic service akin to tutoring, testing, and for-profit education. In other words, this promotes the appearance of cultural legitimacy.
Some educators believe that students cheat because they don’t have a firm grasp on what qualifies as cheating. I may be too cynical to share this belief but, presuming there is a shred of truth to this, companies that engage in feigned legitimacy may actually be successful in deceiving the occasional student into becoming a customer.
Whereas academic legitimacy drives branding for Bio Diesel and affiliates, other Essay Mill brands cater to specific target groups. For instance, as I will address in greater detail when I discuss the Essay Mill customer base, many of my clients were students from Asian, Indian and Arab backgrounds who were either studying in the U.S. or in English speaking universities around the world. A number of online services target students who fit this description.
Find Free Papers is, for example, a Japanese custom paper website presented entirely in Chinese characters
Another example below is a service that explicitly targets students who are struggling to learn the English language.
As with any industry, companies exist to appeal to every subset of potential customers.
Affordable Papers attracts buyers who don’t have a lot of money to spend. A1 inspires confidence through its longevity, indicating that it has been in operation since 1995. Then there’s a site called Essay Have which…well I’m not sure what they’re going for, but the site is bright and friendly looking.
Psychology Term Papers demonstrates that some services provide help in particular disciplines. Coastal Carolina University hosts a resource that catalogues “Internet Subject Specific Paper Mills”, though the resource was last updated in 2009 and therefore contains numerous broken links and defunct websites.
My personal favorite among the sites I’ve come across during my survey is Unemployed Professors. It’s exactly what it sounds like and if you enjoy cartoons that make light of conspiratorial academic dishonesty, then you’ll absolutely love this one.
When we consider the prevalence of academic ghostwriting through the search engine lens, it becomes evident not only that there is a thriving customer-driven industry, but also that this industry comprises a healthy job market as well.
Paper-writing companies are always hiring and the threshold for securing a job in the business is actually quite low. In most instances where I’ve been hired, the only requirement has been to produce a short sample essay in response to an assigned topic.
Once hired, a custom-essay writer will have access to a pool of assignments that will vary in size depending upon the company one works for and the time of year. As we will discuss, assignment pools tend to fluctuate with the seasons.
One of the questions I’m asked most frequently about my former line of work is “How is that legal?” Simply stated, disclaimers are very important in this business. Most companies that I’ve worked for or that I’ve seen online seem to arrive at a similar approach. Most provide language somewhere on the website indicating that assignments received through the service are not to be submitted in class.
Completed assignments are characterized as “original sources,” or “homework aids.” I know I always called them “study guides,” which falls somewhere between a lie and a legally constructed euphemism.
On the subject of legally constructed euphemisms, many ghostwriting companies will also provide a more extensive disclaimer to accompany each completed assignment. This disclaimer may include a formal citation and an indication that the student can use this citation to properly attribute any quotes or ideas that might be drawn directly from this study guide.
The importance of operating under such a disclaimer cannot be overstated. Regardless of the promises that a given ghostwriting company might make on its landing page about helping students cheat or providing them with ready-to-submit essays, the disclaimer is the overarching legal standard protecting a given client.
In a 2011 case reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education, a man offering academic ghostwriting services via Craigslist (which offers no such rhetorical protection) was stripped of his law license. It is ironic that said license hadn’t apprised him of the need for greater caution.
One might presume that the man in question was informed only by the concept of “work-for-hire,” which does seem to provide ghostwriters some insulation from legal scrutiny. According to the Independent Book Publisher’s Association, “’Work-for-hire’ is a statutory exception to the default rule in the United States that the copyrights in a work of authorship vest initially and automatically in the human author of a copyrightable work as soon as that work is somehow recorded or preserved (e.g., by putting pen to paper or clicking on ‘Save’).”
Work-for-hire may imply a scenario in which the individual paid to compose the work has also tacitly agreed to cede authorship to the payer.
Though the disclaimer used by most essay mills notes explicitly that the payer is not to claim authorship of the written work, the same disclaimer will note that the author and company are not responsible for any consequences that may arise from doing so. This, combined with the implications of “work-for-hire,” generally serves to protect the ghostwriter and the ghostwriting company from claims of wrongdoing.
As for the customer, there is a very modest degree of practical security, at least where copyright standards are concerned. Really, only the author or essay mill can take legal action for copyright infringement when a customer “misuses” his “study guide.” Of course, that would constitute terrible customer service in an industry where repeat business is critical to success so it isn’t a particularly common occurrence.
Most companies employ a similar pricing structure, with rates varying based on two major factors: the number of pages and the length of time until the deadline. Papers due in a week or more will fall on the low end of the pricing spectrum. For anything due in less than a week, the cost-per-page will go up as the number of days goes down. A paper due in less than 24 hours will fall on the highest end of the cost-per-page spectrum. For “Rush Orders,” those due in twelve, six, or three hours, the price hike can be quite steep.
The savviest Paper Mill customers will actually plan their cheating strategies in advance to avoid the costly premiums that come with Rush Orders. Some ghostwriting clients will actually upload a syllabus at the start of the semester and place an order for every assignment projected within. This is, for instance, how I came to spend one ironic semester taking a course in police ethics for a bargain-hunting future lawman.
In addition to deadline, some services will also factor academic difficulty into the price of an assignment. For instance, Paper Help charges anywhere between $10 and $197 per page depending on level of difficulty and length of time until deadline. Paper Help’s pricing spectrum is shown here and reflects industry standards.
Prices will become somewhat elastic during times of heavy demand such as Finals and Midterm seasons. During these high-volume times, writers will avoid inherently time-consuming or difficult assignments. By charging customers a higher rate on a case-by-case basis, the ghostwriting service may be more successful in matching the work with a willing writer.
In most instances, the writer will receive half of this payment, with the other half going to the essay mill.
As noted in the sections on “Prevalence” and “Players,” companies vary in their approach to brand and impression management. There is a bit less variance in the way that companies are internally structured, however.
Outside of web management, marketing, and ownership, most paper-writing companies are powered by two primary personnel types: writer-managers and independently contracted writers.
Writer-managers serve a key role in the structure of most paper-writing companies, though responsibilities will vary depending upon the company’s operational model.
In nearly all cases, the writer-manager will serve as a liaison between the company and the independently contracted writer; and as a mediator in conflicts, disagreements, or confusion between writers and customers.
Each company has its own way of processing orders and delegating assignments. The mode of delegation is usually a determining factor in the operational model.
Below is a brief outline of the three preeminent operational models. The models outlined here are drawn largely from personal experience. That said, most of the companies I’ve worked for are fairly representative of trends in the general marketplace.
A writer-manager will send assignments directly to a writer based on declared areas of expertise or, during busy season, sheer availability. Assignments will come with instructions, deadline, and amount of compensation. When a writer agrees to take on an assignment, he or she becomes responsible for submission by the deadline.
A writer-manager will send instructions to a select number of staff writers based on areas of expertise or availability. Based on the deadline, length, and anticipated difficulty of an assignment, writers will quote prices for prospective assignments. Though writers create their own bids, relative market value still applies. Bids that overshoot the anticipated value are rarely matched with assignments. Another writer will likely quote a fairer price. When a writer’s bid is accepted, he or she becomes responsible for meeting the deadline.
- Assignment Board:
This is the most sophisticated and efficient front- and back-end model. When an order is placed through a website, pricing is automatically determined per-page based on the length of time until deadline. The order is also automatically placed on a bulletin board visible to writers by way of username and password. This gives the writer an opportunity to visit the board and select orders at his or her discretion. Once a writer clicks the “Write It” button (or some equivalent), he or she becomes responsible for submitting the assignment by the deadline.
The ghostwriting industry enjoys a customer base comprised of three primary demographics:
- English Language Learners:
International students often arrive at American universities without a background or meaningful support in compositional English. According to a 2003 study, these students lack the skills for paraphrasing and inferential use of sources possessed by their English-speaking counterparts. Many of these students will surmise, perhaps correctly, that they stand a far greater chance of getting away with cheating than mastering a new language. International students comprise a ready-made source of revenue for the ghostwriting business. These students turn to ghostwriting services out of a combination of desperation and expedience.
- Composition/Research deficient students:
A startling number American students—for whom English is a native language—will actually suffer from many of these exact same deficits. The viability of the ghostwriting industry shines a spotlight on the tragically overlooked preponderance of students at the graduate and even post-graduate levels who simply lack the skills or knowledge to produce university-level writing or research. These students turn to ghostwriting services out of desperation.
- Lazy students:
Some ghostwriting clients simply lack the motivation and interest to complete their own work, a condition that Farnese et al. (2011) call “academic moral disengagement.” In many cases, a perfectly capable student will utilize an academic ghostwriting service as a way to defer effort or improve his or her chances of receiving a better grade. In other cases, the lazy student may, in addition to being unmotivated, lack the necessary writing and research skills to complete the task at hand. These students turn to ghostwriting services as the path of least resistance.
- In addition to these demographics, ghostwriting caters to:
- Parents who are working toward a degree while raising children
- Students attempting to balance school and workplace responsibilities
- Adult education students burdened by caregiving responsibilities
- Student athletes with limited interest in academic pursuits
- A wide cross-section of students who are overwhelmed by course-load and homework responsibilities
As demonstrated above, the motives that typically drive students to employ ghostwriting services include:
- Poor mastery of the English language
- Poor comprehension of subject matter
- Poor compositional skills
- Poor time management
- Feeling of being overburdened by workload
- Lack of interest in subject matter
- Feeling that academic dishonesty is culturally accepted
- Procrastination, laziness, disposable income, etc.
Beyond and beneath each of these specific motives is the overarching condition in which the “grade imperative” far exceeds the “learning imperative” among all students for whom both aren’t seen as interdependent. For talented and struggling students alike, for those in Ivy League schools and those in Community college, for those in liberal arts programs and professional development programs, grades have determinant power.
This does not mean that all students will respond to the grade imperative by cheating. But it does mean that a certain percentage of students, in a certain percentage of instances, will decide that this is the most optimal way to fulfill the grade imperative regardless of the damage it may or may not do to the learning imperative.
The ethical imperative is, of course, a distant third in the race.
Any professor can be victimized by ghostwriting. I’ve written papers on many subjects that suggest even cool professors aren’t immune to ghostwriting. I’ve been paid to write about the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. I’ve been paid to write about the history of stickball in America. I’ve been paid to write about what Homer Simpson symbolizes regarding the human condition.
I guess it depends on who you are, but I thought these were pretty cool subjects. Who outsources a paper about Homer Simpson?
It just goes to show, though, that having a great class and being a rock star professor won’t necessarily insulate one from this phenomenon.
It does help, though. Or, to put it another way, if your class isn’t great, it will be easier for your students to get away with ghostwritten papers.
If you are a professor, there are a few habits that can certainly make you more vulnerable to deception.
- Heavy reliance on textbook material
- Reuse of assignments every semester
- Strict monologue style of lecture
- Disinclination toward class discussion
- Disengagement from students
There are also structural factors that individual educators can’t control but which have a definite bearing on their vulnerability.
- Large lecture halls and 100+ student class sizes
- Reliance on graders and TAs
- Asynchronous online courses
- Heavily restricted curriculum/testing standards
These qualities have the distinct impact of making it easy for the ghostwriter to simulate the output of an actual student. They also make it easy for students to become emotionally and psychologically disengaged from the course and the professor, which in turn helps to remove any sense of ethical compunction over cheating. The rote nature of a poorly managed or rigidly structured course makes it easy to pursue grades without ever acknowledging the learning imperative. Once the ethical imperative has been set aside, ghostwriting becomes a rational way to do this.
Unique Challenges Posed By Ghostwriting
Among methods of cheating, the challenges posed by ghostwriting are wholly unique.
These challenges include:
- Original, non-plagiarized content
- A low likelihood of raising suspicion
- Difficulty of translating suspicion into proof
These challenges render both traditional and software-driven methods of plagiarism detection ineffective.
For more on these unique challenges and how to overcome them, we offer a comprehensive resource on detecting and deterring ghostwriting in the classroom.
This resource works best in concert with the present resource, which presumes that in order for one to take a strategic approach to confronting ghostwriting, one must possess a comprehensive understanding of how the business works.
Therefore, this is how the business works…
Most ghostwriting companies rely on automated online order systems. Customers will enter assignment specifications through an order form, including grade level, subject area, deadline, and number of pages. Most sites will provide the user with a quoted price once given these details.
Consequently, the customer can begin to specify details such as assignment prompts, specific sources to be used, and formatting requirements. Students will also use the ordering process to provide more detailed instructions including specific remarks from the professor (i.e., “This assignment will be reviewed for plagiarism using Turnitin.com”) or specific remarks from the customer (i.e. “Pleaz [sic] don’t use to [sic] many big words”).
Additionally, most companies will provide a field through which the customer can upload documents to be used in support of an assignment. This may include pages drawn directly from primary text, in-class lecture notes, or course handouts. The writer who is ultimately assigned to the work will have access to this uploaded material.
Finally, the customer will provide personal contact and payment information. Once payment has been submitted, an assignment is created and writers are notified.
Matching Orders with Writers
The method of notification depends on the model in use. Notification may be automatic or it may be a manual process undertaken by the writer-manager.
Presuming that the writer is working for a model that employs an Assignment Board, each new order will become immediately visible on this board.
In the above model, by clicking “I will write the order,” the writer becomes responsible for completing the given assignment by the deadline. This responsibility is foremost, and a ghostwriter’s job performance will be rated more by punctuality than by quality.
Some companies have financial penalties for late submissions. Others merely require ongoing communication with the client through the appropriate channels. With the client’s approval, extensions may be granted. Given, however, that academic assignments come with fairly inflexible deadlines, it is incumbent upon the effective ghostwriter not to fall behind.
As a writer, I was frequently given direct access to course materials.
Customers will upload or fax their desired sources to the company. These are then available to the assigned writer for download. I have received primary text pages, lecture notes, course handouts, and a host of other materials this way.
In some cases, students are more than willing to provide a ghostwriter with a username and password authorizing access to a university library. Of all the decisions that a student makes in passing his or her work off to a ghostwriter, I always thought this was among the worst.
In the vast majority of cases, customers are likely to provide little more than a set of minimal instructions and the dictate to avoid Wikipedia. In these instances, the ghostwriter’s work begins with Google. Rarely have I been required to extend myself beyond the first two or three pages of search results in either a general Google Search or a scan of Google Scholar.
When scholarly journal articles are required, I would usually draw quotes directly from the abstracts readily available through Google Scholar. Alternatively, when specific texts are required, Google Books and Amazon provide generous samplings of which I made liberal use during my years as a ghostwriter. In a stroke of poetic justice, I found that one can actually read quite a bit of my own book this way without paying a penny.
Communicating with the Client
In most cases, communication with the client is indirect, either mediated by a writer-manager or, more commonly, facilitated by a company website. Here below, for instance, the writer and customer communicate only through a company-hosted bulletin-board forum.
Communication using one’s own email address is prohibited. Generally speaking, it is common throughout the industry for companies to prohibit their writers from sharing any personal information or engaging in communication with the client outside of the company-hosted forum. This is for legal reasons and, probably more importantly, as a means of preventing customer-poaching by independent contractors.
With the Assignment Board model of delegation, once a writer has taken on an order, an email is sent to said writer outlining the assignment’s details. The assignment also appears as a link on the writer’s calendar.
Once the assignment is visible on this calendar, all research and composition falls to the ghostwriter. Work is completed independently and, in almost all instances, through web-based research.
When an assignment is completed, the writer will either upload it back to the company website or submit it directly to a writer-manager. Rarely, if ever, will the assignment be submitted directly to the client. The customer will either receive the assignment from the writer-manager after it has been packaged according to the company’s branding (i.e., cover page, disclaimer, etc.) or will receive notification that the completed work is available for download on the company website.
Ghostwriting is not an exact science. Therefore, writers are expected to provide free revisions to customers where appropriate. This means that failure to follow the instructions or achieve a quality of writing commensurate to the customer’s expectations may result in a request for revision. It is the writer’s responsibility to complete a revision to satisfaction. Failure to do so could result in a refund for the customer and, consequently, lost wages for the ghostwriter.
Most ghostwriting companies and ghostwriters are fair and discerning when it comes to revision requests. I found that miscommunication was a common occupational hazard in a job where a significant portion of the client-base is challenged in the field of written communication. Thus, I daily attempted to navigate orders in which instructions were not clearly articulated, where certain details were omitted or, in some cases, where the customer assumed that I possessed some sort of mind-reading capabilities and that I could simply surmise his or her assignment specifications through telepathy.
I’ve received numerous assignments where the customer would say something like, “I need a personal essay describing an important moment in my life that had a deep emotional impact and changed who I am intrinsically and in perpetuity” and consequently would provide zero specifications about said moment. When a student provides no specifications on a subject like that, he’s paying for an essay about the life-changing occasion when he rescued 30 orphans from a burning building. He may or may not request a revision.
Either way, he isn’t getting it.
By contrast, if a customer had originally specified that the assignment should be in MLA format and I provided an assignment in AMA format, he would be entitled to request a revision and I would be expected to provide it.
There is one catch when it comes to revisions. Though most paper writing companies operate with a ‘free revision’ and ‘satisfaction-or-your-money-back’ guarantee, companies do not guarantee grades, at least not the honest ones. Neither I, nor any of the companies I ever worked for, guaranteed grades. Any guarantees would center on the customer’s approval of the finished product.
This meant that if a customer did like a paper enough to hand it in, this submission marked the end of our work with the assignment. Even if, at this juncture, the customer returns to the website with professor feedback requesting a revision, this revision will be refused.
Of course, every customer is free to place a new order through the company based on professor feedback. That is to say that refusal to address professorial revisions is a mere technicality. For the right price, the ghostwriting company will serve as an ongoing source for material in response to professorial feedback.
In some scenarios, I can even recall being asked to provide, for a price, responses to professor inquiries regarding completed assignments. Indeed, this is how I assisted some students in satisfying longer-term commitments such as dissertations or semester-long courses.
In many of these instances, the student would become little more than a liaison between a ghostwriter and a professor.
There is no assignment too lengthy, involved, or challenging that a ghostwriter can’t be hired to do it. One mistake a lot of educators make is to presume that because their work is challenging, their process is effective, and their students are excellent that ghostwriting won’t penetrate their classrooms. This isn’t the case.
Ghostwriters are paid to conduct research, compose material, and take on intellectual challenges every single day. Few will be intimidated by large-scale assignments. In fact, the certainty of a bigger paycheck is almost always enough to attract a writer for any assignment, no matter how horrible.
I once wrote a 160-page paper about International Financial Reporting Standards during one very long week. I’d sooner eat a light bulb than endure that experience again.
But I did it. And so do hundreds of other ghostwriters every day. Completing a dissertation is not that difficult. Making it good is another story. But most students who are willing to pay money so somebody else will complete their dissertations aren’t necessarily looking for good. They’ve just reached the point where they need something to hand in. I would honestly do my best with each assignment but I can’t speak for every ghostwriter where this is concerned. Just know that dissertations are more than manageable for the ghostwriter and, at the right pay, well worth the time.
The same is true for online courses, which often are unchallenging. Ghostwriters who are completing online courses will use customer usernames and passwords to complete digital tutorials for credit, post responses to messages from “classmates,” and access online course materials to complete assignments.
Some for-profit online models are especially vulnerable in this area. Assignments are often recycled, highly accessible for one with no prior subject knowledge, and, in my experience, graded more for mere completion than for quality.
Business Model Strengths
Ghostwriting is distinct among methods of cheating in ways that make it a strong business strategy when executed properly.
Originality of Content
The appeal of the product centers around the fact that customers are paying for and receiving completely original material. Most ghostwriting companies have ground-rules for their employees. Key among them is the responsibility to produce wholly original and non-plagiarized materials. This means no cut-and-paste and no recycling old papers. By matter of contract, ghostwriters are not allowed to cheat.
This means that methods of confirming plagiarism such as Google phrase searches or Turnitin original reporting will not single these assignments out. This makes ghostwriting an increasingly popular method of cheating for students who are aware of the plagiarism-detection strategies used by their universities.
For ghostwriting companies, there is a strong incentive to ensure that writers are producing original content. This original content is what gives ghostwriting its unique value. If evidence arises suggesting that the writer has provided material that is not wholly original, the company may launch an investigation that could result in termination.
In this respect, it should be known that many ghostwriting companies have “internal affairs” strategies aimed at ensuring the integrity of the product.
As the discussion on dissertations and online classes demonstrates, repeat business is essential to a company’s success. Not coincidentally, it is also a nearly automatic condition for many customers.
Once a student with a limited ability to write using the English language has submitted an assignment composed by a professional freelance writer, he or she is on the hook. A customer runs the considerable risk of being detected retroactively by following a ghostwritten assignment with one of his own compositions. The differences in diction, phrasing, and sheer compositional ability are likely to be unmistakable.
Many companies provide a field by which customers placing a new order can request a specific writer. Repeat customers can use a writer’s username to request his or her services. It was in this way that I would take entire semesters worth of work for some students.
The point here is to dispel the notion that ghostwriting services will inevitably produce papers of low quality. Educators should not be deceived by this comforting assumption. The reality is that even middle-quality writing by a professional ghostwriter will, in many cases, still far exceed the compositional abilities of a student.
More importantly, a company that provides a better product will see more repeat customers, will pay higher rates to better writers, will grow, and will be a more dominant presence in the domestic Essay Mill marketplace.
Supply and demand is seasonal. The ebb and flow of demand is highly contingent upon the scope of the typical school year. Orders are created year-round. However, demand is far lower in the summer months.
By contrast, September to May marks the regular season for ghostwriting. Demand is steady and there is always a stable of writers equal to the number of orders, however overburdened with deadlines this stable might be during Finals.
Likewise, I can tell you from experience as a freelance writer that this was the easiest, most consistent, and most reliable way to keep my schedule filled with paying work every single day, especially for a recent graduate fresh from campus. The demand for academic ghostwriting is always sufficient to ensure work for those writers who are prolific and enterprising enough.
During busy seasons—which coincide with Midterms and Finals in Late November, Early December, and Mid-March through May—most ghostwriting companies actually have more work than they can handle. I did most of my work through a hub that took in orders from a number of syndicates. Our staff consisted of at least 200 writers at all times. Some companies boast far larger writer pools than that.
During busy seasons, demand would sometimes temporarily exceed supply. More challenging or time-consuming accounting or computer science orders would remain unclaimed on the Assignment Board while writers gobbled up the easier liberal arts papers that flooded the site all day and night.
This supply and demand ratio makes ghostwriting a fairly attractive entry point for freelance writers with no other paying outlet. Indeed, one of the reasons that it took me 10 years to get out of this business was the fact that I simply couldn’t find a job that was competitive with it both in terms of pay and in terms of consistency. This is the kind of condition that can attract not just aspiring writers such as my younger self but also underpaid adjuncts, underemployed scholars, and frustrated educators approaching retirement.
Ghostwriting sites often boast the services of such individuals. This claim is true, even though many humble liberal arts bachelors like me learn to represent themselves as PhDs when pressed on the subject.
However you slice it, it’s hard out there for a freelance writer. Ghostwriting is not an easy job but getting work doing it is very easy.
Ease of Access (Googleability)
One of the core strengths of the ghostwriting business is how effectively it has been able to proliferate entirely through search engine visibility. Little marketing may be needed to get a company off the ground beyond effective Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and, for some companies, investment in a sponsored search link.
Custom paper writing is entirely driven by how immediately findable the service is on a Google search.
Because ghostwriting services operate largely within the confines of the law, they do conduct business out in the open. This makes it easy to spread awareness of a service’s availability.
High Profit Margin
For the most enterprising of custom paper-writing businesses, the field has the capacity to be highly profitable. As a service-based business, its overhead is modest. Writers are independently contracted. This means that employee compensation is only required when orders have been commissioned and completed to satisfaction. As noted in the section on “Pricing,” the company will typically make something in the range of 50 percent of the price of each order.
Beyond that, expenses include web design, web maintenance, and compensation for full-time employees such as writer-managers. In reality, though, with a properly automated bulletin board web system, a company can be run by very few people and for extremely little overhead. This makes the possibility of new entrants into the market a real and constant one. Executing properly and investing in a good website upfront, a paper-writing company can pop up and become profitable in under three months. This suggests that a strategy of confronting individual ghostwriting companies, even the most successful of them, is a temporary solution at best.
Business Model Weaknesses
Like any business model, ghostwriting is not without its flaws:
High Quality Variance among Vendors
Companies vary widely in credibility. Like any industry, ghostwriting exists along a broad spectrum of quality. There are many companies that provide a great product at a fair rate.
But there is also no shortage of sub-standard companies, many based outside of the United States, with some concentration in Eastern European countries. Companies of this nature churn out cheap, low-grade papers, often composed by writers for whom English is not a first language.
The company below, which has a blissfully awesome sense of irony, warns us to “Be Ware of Overseas Custom Writing Companies!”
They aren’t wrong.
Students seeking out a custom-paper service must be wary of this high variance in quality. And in most instances, the customer will have very little recourse against a shady paper-writing company. While the better companies are compelled to produce quality work in the interests of business growth and customer retention, less competent companies are more concerned with turning over a large number of assignments every day.
This is an approach I’ve witnessed in my interactions with companies based outside of the U.S., where standards of operation are often flimsier and rates of pay are comparatively lower.
This variation means that while there are quite a few paper-writing companies out there, not all of them can produce assignments that pass muster. Many of their customers wouldn’t necessarily know the difference. However, grading professors will.
Without knowingly detecting impropriety, many a professor can at least safely assume that he or she has punished students for using these subpar services by giving them bad grades.
Many of these subpar companies are destined for a short lifespan, to be outlasted by those which provide a higher quality product. Generally speaking, until Consumer Reports begins conducting encompassing reviews of the academic ghostwriting business, it falls upon the customer to navigate with caution.
High Quality Variance among Writers
In addition to a high variance in quality from one service to the next, there is a high variance of quality between writers. Some ghostwriters are truly excellent at what they do. Moreover, many actually view themselves as scholars. As a ghostwriter, I worked hard to make the most of my educational opportunities by conducting sound research and producing high-quality writing.
However, the process by which one becomes a ghostwriter and, consequently, begins taking on complex and varied assignments, is not terribly rigorous. Screening for new hires is modest at best. As noted earlier in this account, the hiring process usually requires only a short sample essay on a fairly straightforward subject.
Many a job is available without résumé, references, or interaction beyond email exchange. This opens the door for an extremely broad spectrum of talent levels where ghostwriting is concerned. From frustrated retiring professors down to frustrated undergraduate students such as myself all those years ago, applicants have many reasons for going into ghostwriting. Some applicants are excellent, some are qualified, and some are simply in need of paying work. Natural ability is not always the prime motivator for an aspiring ghostwriter.
And with so many orders to fill during busy seasons, many paper-writing companies will intentionally hire new writers with little discernment. Because the work can be difficult, the view is that many of the lower-performing ghostwriters will simply fall by the wayside. This is quality assurance by attrition. Though it does effectively weed out unqualified writers, it may not do much to protect the students they serve before they burn out.
As noted, while supply and demand offers a favorable equation for the ghostwriting business, volume is highly dependent upon slow and busy seasons. One thing that this dependency shows us is that the volume of ghostwriting orders in transaction on the Internet is directly proportional to the number of papers that have been assigned by the totality of American universities at any given time.
In fact, for many students, the sheer pressure of a heavy Midterm or Finals workload will be a major motivation in deciding to employ a ghostwriting service. This means that professors interested in catching students in the act should be on especially high alert for suspicious submissions at these times.
The counterpoint to these times of heavy volume is the period between June and August. While there are always assignments coming in, the Spring semester flood will slow to a trickle at certain points in the summer.
For both the business and its employees, the summer represents a time of exceedingly slow business.
To paraphrase President Calvin Coolidge (poorly), the ghostwriting business is a business. Educators will serve themselves well to accept this fact. The misconception that ghostwriting is a random and limited phenomenon is neither accurate nor useful.
In fact, this idea helps to fuel the survival of the Essay Mill industry. Ghostwriting companies don’t care if you know about them, what they’re doing, or how they’re doing it. Like any traditional business model, the top companies advertise their services, file their taxes with the IRS, and keep their attorneys on speed-dial.
But these same companies benefit from the fact that you might think them too illicit, too untrained, too unprofessional, or too shortsighted to be good at what they do. In fact, this is only true of about half the companies you’re likely to encounter.
Once again, I would point out that this is also true of about half the companies you’ll find in any industry, particularly those that exist exclusively on the World Wide Wild West.
Those paper-writing services that do it well will survive and succeed. Those that do it poorly will fail. Those that do a half-assed but serviceable job will probably find a nice niche, serving customers with shallow pockets.
So…how to stop it?
Well, when we start to view ghostwriting as a business rather than an educational sickness, it makes sense to ask how one might go about preventing any business model from succeeding. Presuming that supply is a consequence of demand in this industry, one must remove the demand.
In our essay on Detecting and Deterring ghostwriting in the classroom, we give consideration to this challenge. We would recommend proceeding from this resource to that one.
Indeed, the emphasis in both resources is on coming to understand the nature of the ghostwriting business and the reasons it succeeds. Many of these reasons can actually be pinpointed within the classroom. As we’ve discussed, these reasons may not always be within the control of an individual educator, department or even university.
Certain educational challenges implicate a more systemic set of obstacles than the need for better essay-policing. When we consider the difficulties that ELL students or students with deficient linguistic skills face in college and graduate school, we can see that many of the reasons that students have for cheating are forged long before the decision to do so is made.
In the simplest of terms, ghostwriting companies are succeeding where schools are failing. These services are helping students get passing grades. In most cases, these services are helping students who, either due to a lack of motivation or a lack of ability, would not otherwise get these passing grades.
Finding a way to make the learning imperative a more powerful motivator than the grade imperative is no easy task. Where most students are concerned, there is a lot more riding on good grades than knowledge.
This incongruity must be the focus for educators who are committed to rooting out academic ghostwriting. Whether by helping students who require supportive services, by engaging those who need an extra push in order to connect with class materials, or by simply showing those who are inherently dishonest that you aren’t to be trifled with, you can make overtures to would-be customers. You can preempt the demand that fuels the constant creation of supply. Consequently, that supply may show up with substantially less frequency on your desk.
In our piece on Detection and Deterrence, we’ll get into this discussion with greater detail and specificity. But the discussion here on the ins and outs of the business should provide a critical first stepping-stone toward confronting the ghostwriting problem. Get to know the business and its customers and you may have a much better chance at preventing your students from seeking out the former and becoming the latter.
1. Rattue, 2011.
3. Matthews, 2013.
6. Glenn, 2011.
7. Gillen, 2012.
8. Yamada, 2003.
9. Finn & Frone, 2004.
10. Farnese et al., 2011.
Farnese, M.L.; Tramontano, C.; Fida, R. & Paciello, M. (2011). Cheating Behaviors in Academic Context: Does Academic Moral Disengagement Matter? Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 29, 356-365.
Finn, K.V. & Frone, M.R. (2004). Academic Performance and Cheating: Moderating Role of School Identification and Self-Efficacy. The Journal of Educational Research, 97(3).115-121.
Gillen, S. (2012). The Work-For-Hire Minefield. Independent Book Publisher’s Association. Ret. https://www.ibpa-online.org/article/the-work-for-hire-minefield/
Glenn, D. (April 13, 2011). A One-Man Term Paper Mill Comes to Grief in Massachusetts. Chronicle of Higher Education. Ret. http://chronicle.com/blogs/ticker/a-one-man-term-paper-mill-comes-to-grief-in-massachusetts/32086.
Matthews, D. (Oct. 10, 2013). Essay Mills: University Course Work to Order. Times Higher Education. Ret. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/essay-mills-university-course-work-to-order/2007934.article
Mayyasi, A. (Dec. 3, 2013). The Ghostwriting Business. Pricenomics. Ret. http://priceonomics.com/the-ghostwriting-business/
Rattue, G. (2011). Ghostwriting an Ongoing Problem in Medical Literature. Medical News Today. Ret. http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/233660.php
Yamada, K. (2003). What Prevents ESL/EFL Writers From Avoiding Plagiarism?: Analyses of 10 North-American college websites. System, 31(2), 247-258.
Appendix A: Keywords/Search Terms
The majority of students who employ online ghostwriting services will locate their chosen provider by way of search engine. Specific keywords and phrases reveal a broad, varied, and seemingly endless set of relevant search results.
The following keywords and all permutations thereupon can be used to dive headlong into the world of online ghostwriting:
- academic ghostwriting
- buy term paper
- college essay help
- custom essay
- custom essay help
- custom paper writing services
- custom papers
- custom research paper
- custom term paper
- dissertation help
- essay examples
- essay help
- essay writing help
- essay writing service
- free essay help online
- free essays
- ghostwriting academic papers
- ghostwriting companies
- paper writing help
- quality research papers
- research paper help
- school help
- term paper format
- term paper help
- term paper writing
Appendix B: Operational Ghostwriting Services and Paper Mills
The alphabetical index below is an exhaustive, though not necessarily all-inclusive, listing of ghostwriting services and essay mills in operation as of November, 2014.
The sites included here encompass a wide array of services from free-standing, independent paper-writing services to those which are affiliated with larger essay mill networks. Sites included in this index are headquartered throughout the globe, with particular concentration in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Beyond the common thread of providing custom essay-writing services to students, the sites included here run the gamut in terms of focus, target audience, brand management, and professionalism.
For instance, leading services like UK Essays, Paper Help, and Custom Papers are among the most common and effective modes. Each site presents itself as a legitimate academic service, but makes little effort to conceal its intent to provide ghostwritten work to students.
Some sites, like Don’t Copy or Academic Integrity, seem to take a perverse pleasure in occupying domain names that might be better suited to anti-plagiarism groups or services. By direct contrast, sites like E-Cheat or Phuck School have taken a decidedly more explicit approach to representing their services.
Thesis Statements targets students struggling with large-scale, graduate, and post-graduate projects, while E-Coursework appeals to students in online courses. Based on its chosen font and imagery, Get A Paper seems designed to capitalize on the Beatlemania of 50 years ago, whereas Essaypedia takes a far more current strategy by marketing itself to hipsters.
Sites like 12,000 Papers and 15,000 Papers, which both appear to be affiliated with the same broader network, use large databases of recycled essays in order to attract custom-paper buyers. Sites like Academic Mythology Papers and Anthropology Papers focus on assignments of a specific discipline; however, it also appears likely that many of these subject-specific sites are affiliated with general providers of academic research.
In sum, this resource includes links to more than 300 ghostwriting websites in operation today. That figure renders this the single largest and most current index of such services available online today.
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TheBestSchools.org would like to thank artist Sue Beatrice (All Natural Arts) for permitting us to use her wonderful image, The Ghost Writer, to open this article. This image can be found on her FB page here.
I’ve met a ghost. Not the kind who haunt old Victorian mansions, moaning, pacing hallways, slamming doors, but a family man with an ordinary day job.
He works as medical writer, and in the last seven years, he has authored an impressive set of articles found in top scientific journals. You won’t recognize his name, because he is unacknowledged for his contributions.
He is known as a “ghostwriter,” a figure despised by medical journal editors who wish to see him “exorcised” from the literature.
Because they leave few traces, little is known about ghostwriters. Luckily, I had the privilege of interviewing one who agreed to speak freely about ghostwriting on condition of anonymity. For All Hallows’ Eve, we present you with an Interview with a Ghost.
Q: Can you briefly describe what you do as a medical ghostwriter?
A: I work as part of a publishing team consisting of: 1) the supporting pharmaceutical company, 2) the true authors of the study, 3) reference support staff, and 4) graphic support staff, if I’m lucky. In a perfect world, this team would work together to produce a readable, accurate account of the study in question, its results, and a critical review of how those results may (or may not) change the standard of care. In reality, authors are required to publish their findings, and the pharmaceutical company is paying for the study, so they are looking to me to produce a manuscript that will help make the company’s drug the new top dog.
Q: What led you to medical writing?
A: When I was a graduate student, I had no idea there was anything else for a PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology to do other than an industry lab, a government lab, or staying in academia. My first position, a publications manager for a medical communications company, just sort of fell in my lap.
Q: What do medical writers charge for their work?
A: Experienced medical writers will typically charge between $100 and $150/hr or about $3,000 to $4,000 per assignment.
Q: In cases where you are not listed as an author, are you listed as a contributor in the acknowledgments section of a journal?
A: Some clients feel it is in their best interest to present me as an author, but the pharmaceutical company will often shut them down, since I am not a thought-leader in that field. Sometimes I am added to the acknowledgments; most often I am not mentioned at all, which technically makes me a ghost.
Q: In what journals have articles that you’ve ghostwritten appeared?
A: My work appears in almost every medical field, from the New England Journal of Medicine, to the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Oncology, PLoS Medicine, American Journal of Psychiatry, Cardiology, and supplements to most of these journals as well. I have also authored a number of online continuing medical education (CME) sessions, various symposia presented at medical conferences, as well as posters, abstracts, and those pamphlets you see at your doctor’s office discussing treatment for a disease or how to self-medicate.
Q: Are there any tell-tale signs of a ghostwritten article? Can you detect it in other papers?
A: Ghostwriting is easy to detect if you know the primary author, or witnessed that individual present at a conference. When someone isn’t clear, or jumps around a lot, or can’t speak the language, yet has a publication in the NEJM, you can bet there was a ghost involved. Very prolific clinical researchers – especially those actively seeing patients and running their own clinics – are also likely to be working with ghosts.
Q: Studies of the prevalence of ghost and honorary authorship in medical journals , and Cochrane reviews  report that about one in 10 articles include ghost authors. Both of these studies were based on author self-reports. How accurate do you think these estimates are?
A: I think that figure is a little low. You have to remember that authorship is key to success and survival for most researchers.
Q: Litigation against Merck regarding Vioxx revealed that academics were routinely recruited and paid to put their names on articles they had little (if any) involvement in producing, for the explicit purpose of creating credibility for the study . Is this a common practice?
In my experience, the pharmaceutical company would pay a communications/marketing company to write the manuscript, who would then go out and find academics who would be willing to become the “authors” of the manuscript and paid an honorarium. I’ve worked with some authors who do absolutely nothing on the manuscript, requiring an additional ghostwriter to be hired, and still demand an honorarium for their time. These academics are willing to enter into this relationship because of the importance of authorship to their careers. You can’t entirely blame the pharma company. Universities encourage academics to play this game.
Q: Do you believe that you add value to medical publishing, or are you merely a hired hand for work that others refuse to do or do badly?
A: Short answer is “yes.” I believe I provide a service to those who need assistance presenting their findings to the scientific community. If you have a great study but present it badly you won’t be seeing it anytime soon in NEJM. Until we do away with authorship requirements for promotion and tenure all together, we will continue to need the skills of individuals, like myself, if these studies are to be published at all.
Q: Have you attempted to influence an editor to accept a manuscript?
A: I personally have not. Besides being morally wrong in my view, it is extremely difficult to get in touch with journal editors, which makes the submission process such a joy. Yes, that was sarcasm.
Q: Have there been cases where your sponsor wanted you to make conclusions that were not supported by the data? How did you deal with these instances?
A: Yes, I have. Every manuscript includes some marketing spin and controlling how much spin is the trick. Sometimes the abstract — often written by someone else — comes to a different conclusion than the main manuscript or relies on different data. The easiest way to deal with the issue [of unsupported conclusions] is to use the data.
Q: Are you a member of a professional society for science writers? Does that society have any guidelines for ghostwriting?
A: I have been a member of the American Medical Writers Association from time to time. They do have a series of guidelines and a code of ethics and they do suggest that medical communicators be recognized for their contributions.
Q: How do you claim credit for articles that you have ghostwritten for which you are not acknowledged? What does your CV or resume look like?
A: My CV consists of the various positions I’ve held through the years, and I do have a portfolio of projects that I have worked on. Most of my new business comes from former clients. If you stop hearing from a company that you have a long working relationship with, it may be due to some issue they had with your last project.
Q: Do you trust the medical literature? Or, now that you have a view on how the system really works, does it give you pause when you read the literature?
A: Every manuscript uses some marketing gimmick or spin in order to enhance the weight of the data. I remember when I was a graduate student, we were taught to look at our data with a critical eye. When a figure from a scientific lab has extra bands or markings that are not even mentioned in the text, it throws the whole manuscript in question for me. I can’t stop questioning the literature, especially in the higher tier journals, where there is a lot of “I’ll wash your back if you wash mine,” mentality. Don’t get me wrong, I love science, I just know how the game is played, and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Q: Some have proposed that we need to rid the medical literature of ghostwriters; others argue that we merely need to make their identity and contributions known . What is your opinion?
A: Either journals should establish agreed-upon rules for what defines an “author” or do away with authorship altogether. I believe that everyone who worked on the paper should be mentioned in the Contributors section.
Q: Can you see your reflection in a mirror?
A: Well, since I’m nocturnal, there is never enough light for me to see anything in a mirror. I can walk through walls, though.
Q: What do you think of garlic?
A: I love it. Remember, I’m not a vampire.
Q: What are you dressing up for Halloween?
A: A medical researcher. Or the fifth dentist (4 out of 5 dentists agree . . . ).
Phil Davis is a publishing consultant specializing in the statistical analysis of citation, readership, publication and survey data. He has a Ph.D. in science communication from Cornell University (2010), extensive experience as a science librarian (1995-2006) and was trained as a life scientist. https://phil-davis.org/View All Posts by Phil Davis