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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