Explorations in math and programming
David Lowry-Duda

I've just learned of the concept of ghostwriting, and I'm stunned.

A friend and fellow grad student of mine cannot believe that I've made it this far without imagining it to be possible. I asked around, and I realized that I was one of the few who wasn't familiar with ghostwriting.

Before I go on, I should specify exactly what I mean. By 'ghostwriting,' I don't mean situations where the President or another statesman gives a speech that they didn't write themselves, but that was instead written by a ghostwriter. That makes a lot of sense to me. I refer to the cases where a student goes to a person or service, gives them their assignment, and pays for it to be completed. And by assignment, I don't just mean 20 optimization problems in one variable calculus. I mean things like 20 page term papers on the parallels between the Meichi Revolution and American Occupation in Japan, or 50 page theses, or (so it's claimed by some) doctoral dissertations.

This felt like nonsense to me when I first heard it, but it also caught my eye. I brought it up with another good friend of mine, and he referred me to an article at the Chronicle, called The Shadow Scholar. It's a stylized auto-documentary by a ghostwriter, claiming to have written thousands of pages of essays for students in the last year. Perhaps better than the essay were the comments. There are a lot of them, and they partly track my own initial thoughts towards ghostwriting.

At first, people were angry. This should be illegal! - they would type. Is it illegal? While it is tempting to immediately turn to ethics, we should not get ahead of ourselves. It is not, as far as I can tell, illegal in general. One might assume that it constitutes some sort of fraud, or some sort of implied copyright infringement or something. It certainly is an abuse of intellectual property, but that doesn't make it against the law to ghostwrite. Instead, all the problems are on the student's side - it is almost certain that the student is violating some sort of school code. Even if not considered direct plagiarism, a student passing off other's ideas as his own is often grounds for serious punishment. So one would expect that students don't do it. I would. But I was wrong.

This concept is so old that Wikipedia has multiple pages on related concepts. The general concept behind ghostwriting is evidently referred to as Contract Cheating (For that matter, there is also a Ghostwriting wiki page).

Suddenly, I doubted many things. This is one of those things that surprised me, and I couldn't wrap my head around it. That is part of the reason why I write about it now - to wrap my head around it. How widespread is it? In The Shadow Writer, the ghostwriter makes their living as a ghostwriter. According to his claim, it pays more (greater than $60,000) than what the average gradeschool teacher makes. I looked for more. Here (from open.salon.com) and here (from thesmartset.com) are more self-told tales of ghostwriters. But in particular, they were all writers, and so they wrote essays for students. In fact, some worked for companies - whole companies of ghostwriters. Wikipedia beat me here, too - these are known as "Essay Mills". The phrase 'essay mill' is clearly meant to be suggestive. How easy are they to find? Unfortunately, since they're apparently legal, there is no problem with them advertising openly. They are super easy to find. Disappointingly so. It turns out that all my friends who were stunned  that I hadn't heard of essay mills... were right to be stunned. And the fact that there are so many is merely evidence of high demand. And prices are high. In fact, I would have thought the prices high enough to be dissuasive too. To pay $10 to $20 a page is unbelievable - an incentive to do your own work, at the least. Unfortunately, it's also an incentive to work at an essay mill. So this made me ask: are there math mills, too? Yes. Unfortunately, they're very easy to find, too. The first one I came across, I found that I could see some of the the open questions. And I was curious. So I opened one up, and it was a mechanics question about springs. A student was offering $2 for anyone who could answer a question: there was this spring with spring constant k, and there was this weight of mass m on top of it. How much is it compressed? I read this, and I think... this is a one liner. So I send the guy a message - Do you know Hooke's Law? He responded, i think weve covered itin class. does that help? Can you plz hlp me?

So I write him a message telling him the law, and that if you plug in numbers it says that you divide. And then, the site credits me with $2. What?

Now, I'm even more caught in this trouble. I contributed, in a little way, to this terrible thing. I have carefully avoided talking about the ethics of ghostwriting, because I wanted to talk about other things first. But now, to be clear, I think it's terrifying. That there is such high demand is evidence to me of a great lack of ethical strength or moral integrity on behalf of students. It's also evidence of a great lack of inspiration. Many people treasure education - it's priceless (excepting of course the large price we put on it). An education can change a whole lot about a life. But for someone to subscribe to a ghostwriter is to go completely against that.

I've read several different articles on ghostwriting now, and many comment threads on these articles. The best ones, in the sense that I found them most educational, are those where the following happens: a ghostwriter writes the article with the same dark, insinuating tone behind the name 'essay mill' and gloats a bit about how they make more money than some professional educator; people become appalled and, more or less, insult them; the ghostwriter defends himself and his career; and then one or both sides accuses the educational system as having failed these students. I think The Shadow Shadow is an excellent example of this.

I deem it immediately ethically obvious that it is wrong for a student to use such a service. At first, I was not so convinced about the moral and ethical situation from the ghostwriter's point of view. It's not illegal, and so supply of ghostwriters is free to rise to demand. Some might even say it would be terrible for a free market to behave in any other way. I talked with yet another fellow grad student, and we chatted about some of the quandaries of ghostwriting. Many of the grad students I know tutor to get a little extra cash, and one of the problems is that we are often paid to help people with their homework. And that's related. Where is the line?

But instead of justifying ghostwriting, I think that this experience has made me really ponder the ethics of being a good tutor. In essence, tutors should elucidate. Perhaps this is very obvious. It was for me, and then it wasn't for a bit, and now it is again. This is sort of like John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, where he demands the importance of a free marketplace of ideas so that out of conflict, the 'good ideas' can be revealed.

So I am completely against ghostwriting, and even more against students willing to use it. So I think it is most natural to then ask: what should be done about it? This is not so easy, I think. Especially because, though I think ghostwriting is wrong, I also place the fault largely with the student.

Large scale detection is impractical in the sense that we cannot possible hope to catch every plagiarized case. It's also impractical to demand all work to be done in class (I think). I'll be on the lookout for this when I teach. I'll be sure to have times when students must demonstrate some sort of working knowledge in class.

Really, I think this comes down to a simple philosophy. A student who goes to college should want to learn about whatever it is that they're doing. A college shouldn't give a student a degree unless they are proficient in whatever that degree guarantees.

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Comments (1)
  1. 2011-12-02 Joann

    Interesting post. Have you heard about the case of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's doctoral thesis from London School of Economics? It was suggested that he not only used a ghost writer, but he also copied some parts of his thesis. The funny thing is that he apparently thanked his ghost writers in the introduction. Before I got familiar with this case I was inclined to think that ghostwriting is not a problem of good schools.