Who you gonna call?

Ghost writing is a profitable business. There are celebrities, politicians, journalists and academics among many others who seek out the services of professional writers to add sparkle to their prose, or transform ideas into words. Conversely, there are experts willing to pass on the fruits of their research for others to exploit and publish in their own names. When is ghost writing problematic, and how should it be regulated?

Authorship policies typically focus on inclusion and ensuring that those who have made an intellectual contribution to a paper have the opportunity to be recognised as authors. The injustice of missing out is palpable for those whose careers may be stymied in today’s publish-or-perish environment.
But academic ghost writing presents a different kind of authorship conundrum. What happens when someone who should be an author is absent from the by-line?

The University of Melbourne has recently approved a new authorship policy and procedure. This policy, as it is expected to do, expands on the Australian Code for the Conduct of Responsible Research, to articulate the University’s own principles about authorship as well as procedures to follow at the local level. In addition to identifying the essential criteria for inclusion as an author, the new policy at Melbourne also explains why people who have not made a sufficient contribution to a paper ought not to be credited with undue recognition.

These exclusion criteria provide the beginnings of a framework for understanding why ghost writers should not be listed as authors. Namely, it is because they have not made the significant intellectual or scholarly contribution to a research output that is expected of the person who will benefit from the attribution.
The criterion of public accountability is also critical in this regard. Are people engaged as ghost writers willing to take public responsibility for their writing? A lack of engagement with the research project will likely exclude contract writers from the outset.

But for many people the bigger problem lies not with the inclusion of the ghost writer as an illegitimate author, but with the absent author: the researcher who made the scholarly contribution and who ought to be publicly responsible for the research output. How do we account for this absence and how do we hold the absent author to account?

There are many reasons an otherwise legitimate author may not be included in the by-line of a research output. They may have left the research team; they may have no further interest in the research project; or they may have willingly handed over their intellectual property to collaborators for use as they see fit. Indeed, the nature of intellectual property is that the owner can pass it on to others as they wish.

Problems arise, however, where any potential conflicts of interest are not disclosed when the research is eventually published, and it is exactly this sort of situation that critics of academic ghost writing have in mind.

We can consider an analogy: when a real-estate owner sells their property, any caveats attached to it do not disappear. For example, if I sell you my heritage-listed house and restrictions apply to how it may be renovated, these restrictions still apply after the sale. I therefore have an obligation to reveal these to you and any potential buyers. Similarly, car owners must sell their cars with roadworthy certificates or ought to advise that that the buyer will need to obtain one after purchase. It’s for the same reasons that when a researcher who has conducted academic research under the auspices of a funding body hands this research to collaborators and professional writers to report publicly, they have an obligation to convey information about any potential conflicts of interest so that this information can be relayed at the time of publication.

There is nothing inherently wrong with declining to be listed as an author, or with making use of research conducted by someone else. The important principles to remember are honesty and open disclosure. And ultimately, disclosing a funding source or other potentially influential factor, however distant from the final output, is the responsibility for those who are publicly accountable for the research: the authors whose names are at the top of the page.

More Information

Clare McCausland