Reviving the Discourse on Ghostwriting

In the world of publishing, whether freelance or in-house, the terms ghostwriter and ghost editor are routinely used as roles in the publication process. The term ghost generally refers to “a disembodied soul” as defined by Merriam Webster (2022). Perhaps, a ghostwriter is referred to as such because they are ‘disembodied’ from the credit of a text. The history of ghostwriting appeared “as far back as the fifth century B.C. when wordsmiths in Athens kept busy preparing speeches, governmental pronouncements, and legal documents for officials and citizens. A ghostwriter named Lysias is credited with 200 speeches in antiquity, 35 of which survive today” (Knapp & Hulbert, 2016, Prologue viii section). Lysias is an example of an ancient speechwriter, a profession still widely used today, especially in politics, and Lysias is a particularly famous example due to the accessibility of his wording. Although this role has existed for centuries, there are times when those within the modern industry should question whether this practice still holds relevance and the implications for non-visible writers and editors. The aim of this article is to investigate why ghostwriters are used, the discourse surrounding the ethics of it in academia and scientific research publications, and how to address authorship transparency.


Figure 1: Unknown. Thibault, S. (n.d.).

The first concept that has to be forefronted is that ghostwriters and editors will compose and refine written works without designated credit. Merriam Webster defines the act of ghostwriting as “to write (a speech, a book, etc.) for another who is the presumed or credited author” (2022b), and ghost editing polishes any details that could have been missed throughout the editing process. However, for the purposes of this article, ghostwriters tend to dominate as the main concern of genuine authorship. Teams of unnamed writers and editors are employed in a wide variety of fields such as medicine, music and film, law, literature, public speeches, academic research, and journalism. Since ghostwriters develop a written work on behalf of someone else (or organization) and hide their name, the concept of ghostwriting holds even more controversy. A writer is the one who conceptualizes a piece of composition, organization, and what information should be within it, and accrediting another with each of these components potentially reflects a dishonest image of the author to the audience.


To understand this field more clearly, the concepts of authorship and authorship order are paramount aspects of writing and publishing. Surajit Bhattacharya (2010), an editor for the Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences (IJPS), explains the ‘authorship order’ (also known as 'authorship listing') phenomenon:

Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take responsibility for the content. Authorship credit should be based only on substantial contributions to (a) conception and design, or analysis and interpretation of data; and to (b) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and on (c) final revision of the version to be published (p. 233).

Claiming a large portion of credit in a piece of writing not only adds prestige within the relevant industry but also generates a more considerable portion of income in their professional careers. If name order gives the intellectual capability and influence of a written piece, then not including writers who make a sizable impact on that piece in the main author listing subverts the skills and talents of those writers.


Figure 2: Illustration for Ghost Writer. Anonymous. 2013.

Nonetheless, an anonymous contribution is not a new concept in both the sciences and arts. Charles E. Beck and Nancy J. Walters (1992), professionals in the technical communication field in the early ’90s, state: “Across this range of employment, the role of the communicator seems to just ‘appear’ along with the product or service, without a sense of authorship … listing is the exception, rather than the rule” (p. 280). Beck and Walters explain an environment primed to omit credit for their writers who develop communicative documents. Beck and Walters (2014) also comment on the shift in focus from historically unknown creators:

In the social milieu of the Middle Ages, architects, artists in stained glass, and numerous craftsman constructed magnificent cathedrals, anonymously contributing to great corporate work. But the tendency in all arts and sciences has been movement toward recognition for the contribution of individuals (p. 280).

The shift to individual contribution and praise arose in the early 90s, specifically in massive industries of Hollywood, medicine, technology, science, and law. Besides the need for fair recognition, some ethical considerations fuel this ethical debate, such as rhetorical transparency to readers and plagiarism.


Figure 3: Being a Writer. Guidone, J. 2017.

Consequently, one area of ethical question in ghostwriting is in the development of medical texts. In fact, ghostwriting in medicinal research is one of the most concerning dilemmas due to the critical nature of information related to public health and safety, especially for medications developed and distributed by pharmaceutical companies. Keith Dawes (2007), a senior director of medical writing at PRA Health Sciences, stresses the need for medical writer visibility in medical journals and related misconceptions:

The preconception that medical writers are all unscrupulous-employed by Machiavellian drug companies to distort and promote scientific data in an unethical matter–is untrue. Most medical writers would welcome more recognition, and in an effort to increase transparency levels several publication guidelines recommend that papers acknowledge medical writers (p. 208).

Although medical writers can receive some credit for their involvement in a publication's manuscript, Dawes is referring to how most medical writers are credited inconspicuously. Conversely, there are unfortunate instances of manipulated, suppressed, or negatively omitted data in some publications to highlight research positively in marketing materials for medication. For that reason, clearly listing the impact of each writer is not only fair but holds individuals and organizations accountable.


Figure 4: Checking the footnotes for ghostwriters. Being a Writer. Guidone, J. 2017b.

Additionally, there are attempts to ‘re-brand’ ghostwriting by entering the name of some writers in the footnotes rather than the main authorship order list. Alastair Matheson (2016), who worked as a consultant, analyst, and writer in the pharmaceutical industry between 1995 and 2012, states the counterargument against including medical writers in the official authorship listing: “It is argued that composition is technical, not intellectual; that writers are not experts in the subject matter; and, by industry, that academic authors ‘direct’ content and have the final say over the manuscript that medical writers compose” (p. 1). However, the opposing rationale trivializes the concept of composition. Composition is a vital component of writing, and it is equally important to disclose how a text is assembled. It is also a misconception that writers, especially medical ghostwriters, are ignorant of medical terminology. Matheson (2016) addresses these misconceptions at the end of his article with a table labeled ‘Misconceptions’ and ‘Reality’:

Misconception: Ghostwriters merely carry out academic authors’ instructions and are not qualified to defend the articles they draft. Reality: Most industry writers are embedded in editorial teams who also instruct them and may review and develop their work according to commercial objectives. Many industry writers have science PhDs, can skilfully draft text which is both scientific and commercial, and are better qualified than academics to account for the commercial nuances of articles” (p. 5).

Figure 5: Medical writer. Unknown. Nilsen, M. (n.d.)

There is a reason why writers choose a niche in which to write. Although some writing techniques overlap, a text's composition and knowledge of how and what to write are incredibly industry-specific. A freelance copywriter, for example, will take direction from a client to produce marketing materials for a product or service, but they must still research the audience to find the most effective language for the copy ad. In the world of medicine, it is essential and common for writers with a background context in medicine to take part in meaningful editing and writing of content.


Contrarily, while plagiarism typically refers to the wrongful stealing of someone’s work to claim as their own, ghostwriting has entered the discourse as a new form of plagiarism. Muhammad Khurram (2019), the Head of the Department Medical Unit One at Rawalpindi Medical University, makes the following observation: “Interestingly a plagiarist is thieve [sic] who steel [sic] someone’s work while [a] ghost writer willingly gives credit of his work to someone else” (p. 64). Therefore, the ethical lines become blurred when a writer willingly allows their work to be used by a different name. Ghostwriters allow this mostly because the role is so normalized in the writing profession. Ghostwriting is also lucrative because clients are willing to pay for their work and the right to use it however they wish. While using a ghostwriter is not ‘stealing’ in the original terms of the definition of plagiarism, it is still incredibly misleading.

Figure 6: Unknown. Ding, M. 2021.

Due to the fact that plagiarism, especially for undergraduate writing students, is typically defined as blatant stealing of existing copyrighted content from another writer. As a result, ghostwriting is a legal loophole that leads to a lack of scrutany in ethical conduct, which is clearly evident in the amount of professional ghostwriting services easily found on Google. Hiring a ghostwriter to complete documents for higher education is widespread, primarily for student dissertations. Shawren Singh and Dan Remeny (2016), researchers and instructors for information and communications technology at the University of South Africa, identified three main types of students commissioning ghostwriters:

The first are students whose command of the English language is not sufficient to be able to write a competent research report. The second group includes students who have not been able to grasp the detail of the processes involved in academic research methodology, and therefore need an expert in the field of study to write up the research. The third group consists of students who are both uninterested in their studies and sufficiently well-funded to be able to afford the high fees asked by ghostwriting agencies (p. 3).

While not illegal, employing a ghostwriter, especially for student dissertations and cover letters, misrepresents the person using a ghostwriter. It is reasonable to ask a third party for opinions and feedback on a draft. However, texts that are highly modified or wholly written by another writer and represented to look like the work of another certainly seem like intellectual and academic misconduct. An anonymous ghostwriter who submitted for The Times Higher wrote:

I stay away from applied fields – it is my only ethical standard as a ghostwriter. I will not help a nurse to qualify on false pretences [sic]: who knows, it might be my parents who find themselves in their care (as cited in Singh & Remenyi, 2016, p. 4).

The anonymous writer's statement exposes the predicament of ghostwriting. While there may be harmless cases, it is undeniable that nondisclosed writers who apply a significant contribution to a written text could result in a person earning qualifications that are not justified.

Figure 7: Unknown. Thibault, S. 2013.

In conclusion, ghostwriting is still considered highly controversial, and most experts in the field advocate for more transparency in author listings, especially in publicized research and even marketing materials for medicinal products. Content writers who are contracted or permanently hired by companies to write on behalf of the company differ from ghostwriters. Content writers create content on behalf of a company, especially for websites that appeal to search engine optimization (SEO) to increase web traffic flow. Ghostwritten material completely surrenders copyright, and the author who takes credit can now use both the writing of a document and the ideas however they see fit. For example, if someone asks a ghostwriter to write an autobiography or memoir about themselves to look as if they wrote it themselves, they can profit off any of the ghostwriter's ideas or content in the book post-publishing.


The practice challenges writing ethics and addresses the integrity and capabilities of a person who uses ghostwriters and takes full credit. Guidelines for authorship listing should be adapted. In a world where already big names make more money than the actual content written, it should not be a shameful standard to acknowledge that it is normal for a team to have a hand in the end product of something published. Contributions vary, and as long as they are clearly stated in authorship citations, the expanded transparency will increase trust and accentuate ethics in human creation.

Bibliographical Sources

Beck, C. E., & Walters, N. J. (1992). Ghost writers: the hidden profession. Technical Communication, 39(2), 290–293. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43090297


Bhattacharya, S. (2010). Authorship issue explained. Indian Journal of Plastic Surgery, 43(2), 233. https://doi.org/10.4103/0970-0358.73482


Dawes, K. (2007). Ghost writers need to be more visible. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 334(7586), 208–208. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20506231


Khurram, Muhammad. (2019). Ghost writing and plagiarism. Journal of Rawalpindi Medical College. 23. 64-65. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/338101630_Ghost_Writing_and_Plagiarism


Knapp, J. C., & Hulbert, M. A. (2016). Ghostwriting and the Ethics of Authenticity (1st ed. 2017 ed.). Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/978-1-137-31313-3


Leo, J., & Lacasse, J., & Cimino, A. (2011). Why does academic medicine allow ghostwriting? A prescription for reform. Society. 48. 371-375. 10.1007/s12115-011-9455-2. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225606434_Why_Does_Academic_Medicine_Allow_Ghostwriting_A_Prescription_for_Reform


Matheson, A. (2016). Ghostwriting: the importance of definition and its place in contemporary drug marketing. BMJ, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i4578


Merriam Webster. (2022). ghost. The Merriam Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ghost


Merriam Webster. (2022b). ghostwrite. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ghostwrite


Singh, S., & Remenyi, D. (2016). Plagiarism and ghostwriting: The rise in academic misconduct. South African Journal of Science, Volume 112(Number 5/6), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2016/20150300


Visual Sources

Figure 1: Thibault, S. (n.d.). Unknown [Illustration]. Fortune. https://fortune.com/2015/12/05/ghostwriting-books/


Figure 2: Anonymous. Illustration for Ghost Writer. (2013). [Illustration]. Tree of Life. https://graceformyself.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/illustration-for-ghost-writer/


Figure 3: Guidone, J. (2017b). Being a Writer [Illustration]. https://www.behance.net/gallery/56026413/Being-A-Writer


Figure 4: Guidone, J. (2017b). Being a Writer [Illustration]. https://www.behance.net/gallery/56026413/Being-A-Writer


Figure 5: Nilsen, M. (n.d.). Unknown [Illustration]. EGGS Design. https://eggsdesign.com/stories/read/is-ethics-bad-for-the-design-business


Figure 6: Ding, M. (2021). Unknown [Illustration]. https://www.theindy.org/article/2487


Figure 7: Thibault, S. (2013). Unknown [Illustration]. Barbour Design Inc. https://barbourdesign.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/excellent-editorial-illustrations-by-sebastien-thibault/


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Leah Dietle

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