Is it ethical to ghost-write a paper?

Photo by Bilal Kamoon via flickr
Photo by Bilal Kamoon via flickr

Another installment of Ask Retraction Watch:

I am a postdoc and looking to supplement my income with medical writing (our lab recently didn’t get it’s funding renewed, so now on part-time to minimise costs). The most recent jobs I have been offered are two brief reports and one full article. A quick internet search of the person who contacted me shows they are in science and are genuinely wanting papers written (a number are already in print from a variety of peer reviewed journals). But my question is this. Is it ethical to ghost-write a paper? I should note that not only have I been asked to write it, but also to analyse the data and write something that mirrors a paper from 2007. The person in question has openly stated they don’t have all the data/conclusions yet, but they “like” a particular hypothesis.

My personal feeling is this is unethical and dishonest – authorship disputes on papers can turn nasty in even the most civilised of labs. It appears this is not the first time such proposals have been made, which begs the question, are any of the papers already in print ghost-written? I have declined the work as I do not agree with it, but I wondered what other researchers thoughts were on this? Is this a hidden problem and potential can of worms/grounds for retraction?

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39 thoughts on “Is it ethical to ghost-write a paper?”

  1. No, it’s never ethical to ghostwrite a paper.

    However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the postdoc should turn the job down, just that he or she should insist on certain conditions before taking it on.

    One of those conditions should be that the paper is not ghostwritten: the postdoc’s role must be clearly described in the paper. If the postdoc’s contributions don’t merit authorship (which is likely), then the postdoc’s role should be clearly described in the acknowledgements section.

    That, to me, should be a deal-breaker. If the paper’s authors can’t agree to that, then the paper would be ghostwritten, which is unethical, and the postdoc should turn the job down.

    I’m also a little uncomfortable that the authors say they “like” a particular hypothesis when they don’t have all the data. The postdoc should also insist that the paper be written in a way which accurately and honestly reflects the data.

    Again, if the authors can’t agree to that, that should be a deal-breaker.

    1. “If the postdoc’s contributions don’t merit authorship (which is likely), then the postdoc’s role should be clearly described in the acknowledgements section.”

      Yes, this exactly. I’ve done a lot of editing jobs for my non-English speaking collaborators- esp for “general audience” (as opposed to “technical audience”) journals. (General audience science writing can get tricky even for native speakers.) I’ve explicitly told to them to put me in the acknowledgements as an editing credit, NOT as an author; since I did not do the experiments and cannot claim credit/responsibility for the lab work.

      1. This is the correct situation. If you are acknowledged it is not ghost writing. The job ought to be refused if acknowledgement is not given. We in med comms are working hard to re-educate people outside the industry on the ethical standards we apply, and I therefore urge everyone doing this type of work to follow GPP2 (at least).

        1. I suspect much of the resistance scientists who regularly publish have to the whole idea- esp the American ones- is that publishing is supposed to be a form of scholarship and erudition as well as communication. They’re advertisements for how good the authors are at communicating their science in the form of a talk, visits that typically result in productive collaborations and student sharing.

          Also, what if you invite the first or last author to give a talk, but they don’t actually speak English very fluently? Or simply didn’t seem to have gotten the “how to give a science powerpoint talk” training?

          The reason I help my non-native English speaking co-authors is that their technical English is quite good (I feel I could replicate their work) and their figures are clear (if a bit crowded). They really just need to re-organize so it fits the narrative format of the field, a total re-write of the abstract and usually a few lines in the conclusion, and of course grammar etc.

          The work these scientists do is important, and not just for scholarly fields. It does need to be clearly communicated to broad audiences. I’m happy to help my collaborators so long as they inform the Editors that I’m helping out with the English, so it’s clear who contributed what to the manuscript.

          1. There is also an imperative to communicate clinical trial results quickly. The current system, for all its faults, involves journal articles. If we want the information out fast, then the investigators invariably need help with that. This is just a fact of life that it very, very hard to change. The important thing is to recognise the problem and work with an ethical solution, which we largely have until people go breaking the rules – which, to be honest is more down to ignorance of the system rather than malicious intent.

  2. One of my colleagues just wrote an article about the subject of ghost authorship ( The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors does not consider simply writing a paper to merit authorship, but such contribution should be acknowledged explicitly in the acknowledgments at the very least. Moreover, it can be tough to distinguish between simply writing some text and doing at least a small amount of analysis of the results, which could bring you into the realm of meriting authorship.

    That being said, there’s certainly evidence that ghost authorship occurs with reasonable frequency, especially in medical literature (see, for example). Personally, I wouldn’t be comfortable writing a scholarly paper without being transparent about my involvement, but not everyone feels that way.

    1. American Journal Experts, Enago, and many others are professional language correction, proofreading and editing service providers. They employ dozens of post-docs to help edit, correct and yes write articles for scientists who have ESL (English as a Second Language). They pay pretty badly for the fees they charge, and developmental editing that both of these entities offer (as do other professional editing services), is a form of ghost-writing because the post-doc editors anonymously edit and return the corrected papers back to their paymasters. Of course, if a freelance post-doc editor does 25 papers a month, that could earn them like $1000 – $1500 or more per month.

      1. Hi Max,
        I can’t speak for Enago or any other company (as you said, there are many), but AJE only offers editing services, not writing services ( Editors focus on correcting grammar, spelling, and syntax, along with making improvements in word choice and phrasing within a sentence. However, editing does not include the addition or removal of any meaning. The Developmental Editing service also includes a report with suggestions for improving the manuscript’s overall structure and logical flow, but all changes (if any) are made by the manuscript’s authors themselves. You can find out much more about AJE’s services at our website (
        Ben Mudrak
        Education Program Manager, AJE

  3. I do not think it is ethical to ghost write a paper because a written paper is one way of testing one’s intellectual capacity and worth but if one did not write the paper himself it is fraudulent judging one based on such papers. You did the right thing by declining but how many people will decline such offers especially when money is at stake? Honesty and sincerity to oneself are cornerstones of true intellectualism.

  4. I complete agree with Mr. Jacobs on this. A would suggest reading a book called “White Coat, Black Hat” by Carl Elliot. It is an interesting read on the field of medical writing and other issues surrounding medical research. The book has raised more questions for me than answers but I think that is exactly what it is intended to do, especially for those of us working in the field.

  5. Why the need for ghostwriting at all? Why not negotiate and be an author on the paper? If you’ve been driven to such unconventional working practices when another grant doesn’t come through, sure that’d help you in the long run, giving you more collaborations and a better publication record?

  6. I offer a two-part acid test for this and many other public activities: (a) If you wonder whether you should disclose your role in a particular activity, DISCLOSE IT, (b) If you think disclosure would be more trouble than it’s worth, DON’T DO IT IN THE FIRST PLACE.

    Imagine, for example, the many cases in which people want to use someone else’s words in their own publication. There’s no problem with this if you cite the original adequately. If you submit a paper that is 75% correctly cited quotations, you can’t be charged with plagiarism. You can be charged with not adding enough value to merit a publication, but that’s not an ethical problem.

    Imagine a good researcher who’s a bad writer. I would encourage such a researcher to hire an English major (they come cheap – I know from experience) to write it. If the researcher can get the writer to understand the science, the writer should get explicit acknowledgement (probably not authorship), including the fact that the writer was paid.

  7. A thought that is partially relevant to the original post: some of the comments above suggest that in some disciplines, writing the paper doesn’t count as important enough for joint authorship. Is writing it up an intellectual contribution to the work and thus merits clear declaration? Writing a thesis or dissertation does, why not a paper too?

  8. I have seen a PI, physician-scientist whose first language is English, employ an English/writing major to help write papers. This assistance was acknowledged in the paper but it still beats me why the writing/English ‘expert’ was needed to write the papers. Curiously, when a lab tech contributed significantly intellectually – plan and write research proposal for a rotating medical resident, train resident in lab methods, perform experiments with/for resident, help analyze data, lab tech was excluded as an author by above PI. The PI’s view was that since the tech is being paid to do the work, authorship need not be given. That thought process was puzzling.

  9. We do not have enough information on the issue to make any informed judgement. However, there are a few things that could be commented:
    1) he/she is being paid to write the paper and he/she has been provided with results and some instructions to do that job.
    I do not see any problem in doing that, as it is an usual approach in writing patents, for instance. True that is less usual in scientific papers, but you are being paid for that job. Also, the participation in the writing process should be properly recognized in the acknowledgment section.
    2) He/She does not feel comfortable with the data (or lack off) supporting the hypothesis that should be defended in the paper.
    It is obvious that nobody should ever accept being co-author in a paper including results and/or conclusions he/she does not agree with. NEVER. So, whether this person decides just to do the writing for money, or refuse to do it because of its disagreement with the results, would depends entirely on his/her ethics on the issue.
    3) He/she has been asked to analyze data.
    Anybody who analyzes data for a paper, is contributing intellectual property and is granting his/her right to be co-author.

  10. Ghostwriting (for example, writing the first draft for the authors, substantially revising the manuscript with varying degrees of participation by the named authors, but not being named anywhere in the article as the person responsible for this) is unacceptable. To make these contributions to a manuscript legitimate and transparent, the person who undertakes them should be named in the Acknowledgments section or list of authors and other contributors as appropriate.

    “Postdoc”, try searching the net with the terms [research article ghost writing ghost author medical writer]. This should locate professional practice guidelines on ethical authorship issued by editorial organizations such as the Council of Science Editors (CSE), World Association of Medical Editors (WAME), Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) and International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE). Professional associations for medical writers (AMWA, American Medical Writers Association and EMWA, European Medical Writers Association) have also developed guidelines that advise members to avoid ghost authorship.

    A PubMed search with [author ghost ethics] will locate articles in the biomed literature on the topic.

    The Instructions to authors or Guidelines for manuscript preparation for most reputable journals will contain information about the journal’s or publisher’s policies on who is allowed (or required) to be named as an author. In many if not most journals, ghostwriting is explicitly forbidden. If your involvement in writing the manuscript meets the journal’s definition of authorship, you should be named in the list of authors together with the other authors. These policies are spelled out precisely to prevent authorship disputes — which, as you note, can turn nasty and be very difficult to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction.

    1. In the Middle East, Asia + SE Asia and in South America, and even in non-native English-speaking EU countries, the demand for English text editing and revision services abound. This must surely be a multi-million dollar industry although I have never seen such market figures. In some cases, editing is light, but in many and/or most cases, editing is substantial. The latter implies that significant edits are made to both linguistic and scientific content. Such companies and/or individuals receive financial remuneration for basically “authoring”, “writing” or “re-writing” substantial parts of the manuscript. In many if not most instances, without those professional services, papers would never make it past the submission step, let alone reach the acceptance phase. Yet, you will rarely find such companies or individuals acknowledged.

      However, when scientists submit manuscripts, they are required to sign guarantees that all those who have assisted in some way towards the improvement of a manuscript be acknowledged. Can we thus conclude that not acknowledging these companies or individuals is basically making a false declaration upon submission?

      I argue that such cases are clear cases of ghost authorship since one almost never sees such companies or individuals being acknowledged in the Acknowledgements section. Thus, unless this mega-slice of the scientific literature starts to be acknowledged, there is no doubt that the rest of the discussion about ghost authorship is never going to be resolved. For one simple reason, too many financially-invested interests exist in such services, including by main-stream publishers, most of which have such services… profitable ones at that. So, don’t expect the “ethics” of the “ethical” societies being trumpeted above to be changed anytime soon. Because financial reward unfortunately does trump “ethics” of publishing.

      It’s only in some high-profile cases that suddenly the ethics get challenged and we get some outcry, but an industry-wide outcry would never happen, nor would change. So, forget the hope part of things.

      Incidentally, you will find people who serve on the boards of these “ethics” societies also run “consulting” companies that include such services. I wonder if they request their “clients” (i.e., scientists) to acknowledge their services in the Acknowledgements section?

      The only reason why these “ethics” societies want to talk about ghost authorship is because they have no choice, but the issue is discussed in vague and inconclusive ways, specifically to protect the financial interests of the companies conducting such services. This two-pronged approach to ethics is one of the reasons for the erosion of publishing ethics, because those whom we entrust to set-up the ethical rules are the very same ones who practice protectionist policies of unethical practices (in this case, false or incomplete declarations upon submission of a manuscript).

      Therefore, for example, let’s take Elsevier’s language editing services (text, figures, presentations, posters, etc.):

      Sensu stricto, if an author uses this service, but does not acknowledge it, but then submits a manuscript to an Elsevier journal, surely they are violating the very basic ethical requirements as explicitly stated in their main authorship guidelines? For example, I decided to explore one of the new open access journals published by Elsevier, Biotechnology Reports, where it states:
      “Acknowledgements: Collate acknowledgements in a separate section at the end of the article before the references and do not, therefore, include them on the title page, as a footnote to the title or otherwise. List here those individuals who provided help during the research (e.g., providing language help, writing assistance or proof reading the article, etc.).” Notice the “convenient” use of etc.

      Do you see my perspective?

  11. I agree (mostly) with the above consensus. There are those who are more effective writers and those who are less. I see no problem with the less effective employing the more to lend their skill… but it should always be acknowledged.

    On a few occasions, I have lent my editing skills to friends/random people helping them to rewrite papers. On one occasion, several of my edits (as much as whole sentences that I rewrote completely) ended up in a final published manuscript and my assistance was not acknowledged. I felt personally (as this was by a friend) burned and that the behavior was not fully ethical. Unfortunately, I’m the only person who could possibly call them on this and the downside for me would be far worse than for them.

    Because of this experience, I will now explicitly state that I expect to be acknowledged if any of my edits end up in a paper. (I will not that this experience was, not surprisingly, with a medical research paper… the basic scientists I’ve dealt with seem more than willing to acknowledge anyone who could have possibly contributed anything).

    1. Surely QAQ, you would have the MORAL and ETHICAL responsibility to go back to the original authors and indicate that you will be declaring this lack of declaration to the journal in which such a paper was published? By staying silent on a paper that was submitted with a false declaration, I am of the opinion that you are assisting in the erosion of publishing ethics. All in the name of saving face (i.e., self-preservation). I am sorry to say this, but you have the responsibility of contacting the journal(s) ands authors who you assisted, even if they are your buddies. You cannot “agree (mostly) with the above consensus” and then practice something totally different. Where I do thoroughly agree with you is that “the downside for me would be far worse than for them.” I know this from experience. I assisted a group of Indian authors, for which explicit rules of engagement were established from day 1, and agreed upon by the PI. Much to my surprise when I discovered that the paper had been published without my name even been acknowledged, I did three things: 1) I contacted the author and gave him three opportunities to explain the situation; 2) after the 3rd request, which was followed by silence, I contacted the Indian research institute; 3) following legal threats by the PI and his university, despite my call for a peaceful and logical resolution, I decided to contact the journal editors to indicate that a paper had been submitted to, and published in their journal, with either authorship conflicts and/or false declarations upon submission and final publication (i.e., the failure to declare assistance in the acknowledgements, or, in publish-speak, the existence of ghost authorship). Fortunately, the editors are taking the matter seriously, but it still doesn’t remove the attempted greedy grab by lawyers to pay rent in a day’s work (because they change the color of ethics to suit the client). May I encourage you to go back and correct the literature. Anyone who reads those papers that you assisted with will never know that the effort in those lines were not entirely because of the efforts made by them alone. Trust me, you may suffer professionally, but you will always know that you did the right thing.

      1. This particular journal does not have an explicit policy stating whether or not those who edit the manuscript should be acknowledged. Unlike you, I did not have a formal arrangement prior to agreeing to the work to be acknowledged (or a co-author?) and my contributing didn’t rise close to that of being a co-author. I fixed grammar and rearranged sentences in the intro, some of which were kept according to my edit. The paper was rearranged several times after my edits and a few made the final form.

        I’m not sure if this instance cuts the threshold of bad ethics: Had I felt an author was left off a paper, or had I made a substantial enough contribution that the paper would have been materially different had I not gotten involved… beyond just a few sentences rearranged… sure, I’d say something. I, personally, don’t think they acted in best practice… but not in worst either. There is no explicit acknowledgement requirement and I didn’t (come anywhere close to) merit(ing) authorship and I did NOT ghostwrite the paper. Therefore, I will always proceed with more caution and more explicit arrangement.

    2. Thanks for the reminder to establish these expectations in advance. I’ve helped colleagues edit work this way before and would never have expected acknowledgement. I’m not positive it would have occurred to me to formally acknowledge this kind of assistance received for my own work, though there’s no harm in being generous.

  12. I have been thinking about becoming an academic ghost-writer myself. Actually, I am thinking of legitimizing the whole industry and charge a reasonable price for it. All I ask in return is either a hefty pay for me to hide the fact that my company did all the leg works or state a reasonable tribute as an advertisement for my company somewhere within the article and pay a small fee — i.e., “This figure/movie is prepared by [company name] and it is licensed under [whatever]. [Company name] is the owner of this figure/movie and is responsible for the content it represents.” I do not care having my name in the title at all. I also do not care to acknowledge that say Professor X is the originator of an idea or any derived idea associated from doing this work as long as my company holds the copyright to the results if the idea ever becomes marketable. My company is simply helping this next “Steve Job” flushing out his ideas (aka products) into the jurnals (aka marketplace) so that he/she can get his/her next pile of grants (aka revenue). Think about it, most experimental lab have already outsourced a lot of their operations to independent contractors instead of hiring lab technicians and what not. Even my own lab working on theoretical/computing research have clouded our computing resources and the associated cost with maintaining the computers and internal expertise. Postdocs are essentially hired temps with specialized skills soon to be outdated. And both postdocs and graduate students are starting to write their own grants anyway. It seems that outsourcing article writing and grant writing is the only logical next step in this enterprise. I mean let us face it, it is already happening. By hiding it, we only make the problem fester. On the other hand, by legitimizing the business, we may actually have a chance of some accountability and of reducing the number of retracted papers through the invisible hands of the market.

    — This comment is prepared by Sarcastica LLC Sarcastica LLC (a philantropic fictional company) is the owner of this comment and is responsible for the content it represents. —

  13. Can we distinguish between professional editing, where the editor fixes grammar, technical language, etc., but does not actually add ideas of his/her own, and ghostwriting?

  14. Writing an article is not just typing it in, it requires formulation of the argument, presentation of the literature, interpretation of the results, etc, which constitutes an intellectual contribution meriting authorship. You also indicated that you were expected to do some analysis, again, this by itself merits authorship (the study can’t be completed if the data cannot be analysed). Ghost-writing is usually indicated as you not being recognized as having contributed, so that would be unethical. Once you appear as an author, it is no longer ghost-writing, even if you joined the project quite late in the game. Everybody has a hypothesis they “like” (it’s the one that they think currently best describes the evidence – or at least it should be); we just need to be willing to change what we like when the time comes.

  15. I think the kind of fee-for-service scientific writing contemplated here, provided that the clients are on the up-and-up, is very different from the kind of “ghostwriting” that COPE and others discourage, where a commercial interest writes and develops a paper and then has shills in academe submit it.

    As long as the terms of payment and acknowledgement are clearly decided in advance and mutually agreeable I’m not sure I see potential authorship disputes as a reason not to take the job.

  16. Absolutely not! No respectable authors editors would agree to doing so unless, at the very least, what they did was freely and openly acknowledged in print. Peace on Earth. Peace at home. Peace within. Barry Pless

  17. Interesting question. I think the idea noted by others that a ghost writer has to be acknowledged really is the minimum. So “We thank X for writing the paper”. Again as many note this is not satisfactory. It raises the difficult question regarding the development of argument in the paper, which is an intellectual contribution. The corresponding and first authors will have taken the lead experimentally, from design through implementation to analysis and the onto writing. If they haven’t engaged in the writing (part of analysis, after all), then the person who did should really be on the paper.

    I don’t know how the services provided to those with poor english writing skills operate. I always thought that they simply ironed out the non-english idioms and grammar or provided a full translation service. These should be acknowledged, the same way that we state the source of a reagent, though this does not happen.

    1. Ferniglab, exactly. We should consider ghost writers or English revision services no different to chemicals or reagents. They should be in the same class as students who help to sample, those who give technical advice about a technique or equipment, or those who advise or make useful commentary. In fact, English revision services are extremely important, because without them, many papers would most likely be rejected. So, in fact they could be a tier above chemicals and reagents in terms of importance (for non-native English-speaking scientists). So, why is it that they are never acknowledged? At least I have never seen any acknowledged. Can we confidently say that the authors of most papers that have in fact been improved by such English revision services have made a submission with a false declaration? False declaration because not all entities involved with the submission of a paper were declared. I thought that making false or incomplete declarations was unethical. Or are publishers now getting selective about what can be declared, or not declared? The more we explore, the more we realize that the “ethical” guidelines established by some of these publishers is nothing but a tool to give some sort of “ethical” validity to the business operation. But, we are gradually discovering these gaping holes in publishers’ ethics for one very simple reason: were authors who used such revision and editing services be forced to declare them, there would be possible conflicts of interest, and papers would start to serve as advertisement. And papers with actual conflicts of interest, even if declared, are already on shaky ground. On the other hand, if publishers would now start to retract papers based on the fact that the authors had made false or incomplete declarations, then their businesses would quickly shut down because not only are Chinese, Japanese, many Middle Eastern, European, African and South American scientists an excellent revenue source, they are a massive swathe of the authorship base. I see some really silly comparisons between ghost authors in politics, in business, in journalism and in science. But the publishing ethics of the latter is completely different to that of the former three, so those who are trying to make the line between the 3+1 are trying to take advantage of a new market and revenue source. Let this be absolutely clear those who seek to take advantage of the naivety of scientists and the loop-holes in science ethics and publishers’ purposefully gap-filled ethical guidelines: GHOST AUTHORSHIP IS TOTALLY UNETHICAL if undeclared. I guess if declared then it wouldn’t be ghost, would it?

  18. I’m getting in late here, but I don’t see what is unethical about ghost-writing. There are two provisos: 1) The ghost writer does not get credit for the work, and 2) The ghost writer is not responsible for the work.

    There may be a grey area when it comes to ‘analysis’ but the ethical issues apply to the official authors and not to the ghost writer. Each official author must satisfy two basic criteria: 1) have contributed something tangible and significant to the manuscript, and 2) take responsibility for the whole of the paper. If those are satisfied, it hardly matters who actually wrote the paper.

    The obvious corollary is that scientific authors could never ethically blame the ghost writer if the paper is challenged. By accepting authorship they are accepting responsibility.

    1. Dan, I don’t think this is right – @JATds and others have put forward the core of the argument. Publishing a research paper is part of the “academic enterprise”. That implies you wrote it. if you got someone else to write it, then you say so. Certainly in the areas of science I work in, writing a paper demands a lot of intellectual input and I cannot see why it should be different in other areas. Indeed an integral part of the training of grad students and postdocs is in this area: how to turn hypothesis testing experiments into a synthesis that is interesting and useful. As @JATds puts it, if the ‘ghost” is acknowledged,then there is no longer a ghost, simply an admission that someone else did most of the writing, for whatever reason. It would certainly be interesting to find out how the commercial services operate in terms of what ‘raw materials” they require – just figures and legends or some sort of draft and if the latter, at what stage?

    2. Furthering the comment by ferniglab, Dan, there is one extremely important aspect that you have failed to declare, either mistakenly, or purposefully. MONEY. Ghost writers earn well, in some cases excessive amounts on a per word basis. Thus, the minute that money enters the equation, the issues of greed, abuse, coercion and other possibilities cannot be left out of the equation, known or unknown. And the ethics of the transaction itself becomes an issue. Dan, the logic that you use is that ghost writers do not get credit for their work. This is false: credit comes in the form of a juicy deposit in their bank accounts. The second premise upon which you base your claims is also odd: in your perception, the ghost writer is not responsible. To be honest, not being a ghost writer myself, even though I have had the opportunity and have been made the offer, which I resisted precisely because I opposed the (lack of) ethics of it, I am not sure what the contracts to such works entail. Perhaps there is some clause in such a contract that states that responsibility is fully transferred from the ghost writer to the actual authors upon completion of a job. Allow me to extrapolate to explain why I think your logic does not stick. Party A hires part B to serve party C, but without declaring the involvement of party B. Even though party B created what party A required, usually exchanging intellectual rights for a fee, party C is being lied to by party A, thinking that party A is the true and rightful owner of those ideas. Masked, or not, the true source of the intellectual achievement is that of party B, the ghost writer. Party B will always be responsible for what they have written. For these two reasons, I believe, we should push ghost-writing to the wrong side of the ethical fence. I would say, however, that the issue could be trickier if NO money was involved, and in that sense, I could actually lean slightly towards your side of the argument. However, how many ghost writers do this for free, or for peanuts? My guess would be few, or none. Ghost writers enter this dark world of shady deals behind concealed identities for two reasons: 1) money; 2) fame. Imagine a young ghost writer were to write the words for a famous politician, for example, then perhaps the incentive would be to boost their curriculum, rather than their bank balance. But hard-core, seasoned ghost writers do it, plain and simple, for the money. I don’t see how secrecy (euphemism for lying) is compatible or commensurate with science or science publishing ethics, do you? Of all of the comments I have read, and all of the literature I have read, I cannot find a single convincing or solid argument that ghost writing is ETHICALLY acceptable. I have seen many arguments how it is a good financial supplement, or career choice, but that is not the focus of this discussion. Money is the product of the process of ghost-writing, not its ethical base.

  19. A summary of policies on ghostwriting in medical research, with quotes from different organizations and a useful list of references, is available here:

    Also of interest regarding the responsibilities of translators, language editors and authors’ editors (broadly termed “English language consultants”) is this information: . Click on “Download the full document in pdf format”.

    Current policies are strongly in favor of naming the person who provided the writing, editing or language assistance in the Acknowledgments.

    1. Yes, this is exactly what I have been saying all along, but always criticized for saying! These entities should be declared, plain and simple. That means that if there is already consensus, then two things must take place. If from now on, authors are caught lying, or making incomplete or false declarations about the existence of such entities (ghost writers, editing firms, or others that have IN ANY WAY lent support to the existence of a scientific paper, or its content), then they must be accused of, pure and simple, making false (or incomplete) declaration, i.e., lying to the journal upon the submission of a paper. Plain and simple, lying is unethical. We don’t need some twisted discussion to see the evident. As I have claimed above, it is because there are so many financial interests that the appetite to call it for what it is, i.e., unethical declarations (or lying), that more journals, editors and publishers have not implemented this system rigorously. The second thing that should happen, once we have reached the implementation phase of consensus, is to make sure that authors within a reasonable amount of time, for example, the past 10 years, are given an opportunity to retrospectively correct the acknowledgements sections of their papers to reflect these instances of undisclosed, or incomplete acknowledgements. I don’t see how we can be calling for the correction of the literature because authors lied about their data, or about the source of their text (plagiarism) or the originality of their figures (duplication or manipulation), if we also fail to address the issue of faked, manipulated, or false declarations upon the submission of a scientific paper to a scientific journal. I am not calling for a retraction of such papers, of course not. But I am stating that we should have a phase of reconciliation and repair, allowing authors a fair chance to add an erratum or corrigendum to past papers. I know that current ghost authors who may be doing this as a source of income (basal or additional) will want to dig their teeth into me, but we really have to resolve this serious issue. As for other issues related to publishing ethics that are the subject of retractions, we cannot stand on the ethical fence when it comes to ghost writers and ghost authors (at least in science publishing). We must stand either on the right or the wrong side of it. In other fields such as sports, political or other journalism-based writing, I guess there could be other arguments, but that is not of interest to us here in science.

        1. I wish to factually summarize some findings that I have researched today. In addition, for plant scientists, there may be some interest in a study I published in 2011 on the ethics of authorship in the plant sciences:

          I have also explored the issue of collaborative authorship and its ethical implications, comparing the definition of authorship by several main-stream bodies:


          Elsevier is the world’s largest science publisher (by number of scientific journals). On Elsevier’s official authorship page ( it is stated that “Authorship should be limited to those who have made a significant contribution to the conception, design, execution, or interpretation of the reported study. All those who have made significant contributions should be listed as co-authors. Where there are others who have participated in certain substantive aspects of the research project, they should be acknowledged or listed as contributors.” In addition, Elsevier states clearly, on its “Ethics in research and publishing web-site”, inside the “Authorship” resource ( “Three types of authorships are considered unacceptable: “ghost” authors, who contribute substantially but are not acknowledged (often paid by commercial sponsors); “guest” authors, who make no discernible contributions, but are listed to help increase the chances of publication; and “gift” authorship, which is based solely on a tenuous affiliation with a study.1,3,4″ Finally, as part of its introductory passages, it draws on ICMJE and CSE definitions: “While there is no universal definition of authorship,1 an “author”is generally considered to be an individual who has made significant intellectual contribution to the study.2 According to the guidelines for authorship established by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors
          (ICMJE), “All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be listed.2″”

          References 1, 3 and 4 are (copied verbatim from the Elsevier PDF file):
          1. Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). How to handle authorship disputes: a guide for new researchers. 2003. Available at:
 Accessed on September 12, 2012.
          2. International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: Ethical Considerations in the Conduct and Reporting of Research: Authorship and Contributorship. Available at: Accessed on September 12, 2012.
          3. Scott-Lichter D and the Editorial Policy Committee, Council of Science Editors. CSE’s White Paper on Promoting Integrity in Scientific Journal Publications, 2012 Update. 3rd Revised Edition. Wheat Ridge, CO: 2012. Available at: Accessed on September 14, 2012.
          4. World Association of Medical Editors (WAME) policy statement on ghost writing initiated by commercial companies. Available at: – ghost. Accessed on September 14, 2012.


          Tim Albert and Elizabeth Wager, in reference 1 that Elsevier uses to solidify its official stance, state: “Ghost authors: This phrase is used in two ways. It usually refers to professional writers (often paid by commercial sponsors) whose role is not acknowledged. Although such writers rarely meet ICMJE criteria, since they are not involved in the design of studies, or the collection or interpretation of data, it is important to acknowledge their contribution, since their involvement may represent a potential conflict of interest. The term can also be used to describe people who made a significant contribution to a research project (and fulfil the ICMJE criteria) but are not listed as authors. The ICMJE guidelines clearly condemn this practice and state that ‘All persons designated as authors should qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify should be listed.’”

          Springer is most likely the world’s second largest science publisher (based on volume of journals). Regarding authorship, Springer states “Although there is no universal definition of what constitutes authorship it is generally believed that authors should be identified by the research group as having contributed sufficiently to the scientific work, who are accountable for their part of the work, and who critically reviewed and approved the final manuscript. Criteria: Authoring, Drafting, Reviewing, Approving.” It is difficult (or impossible) to find a formal statement by Springer on its position on ghost authorship, or even a clear definition of authorship. It is a COPE member and offers links to the ICMJE web-site. It offers a guide for editors and managers, but not for authors: . If you click enough buttons and get through the maze of detours, you can eventually track a page that seems intended for all Springer authors on publishing ethics: where it states “All listed authors must have made a significant scientific contribution to the research in the manuscript and approved all its claims. Don’t forget to list everyone who made a significant scientific contribution, including students and laboratory technicians. The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors has detailed guidelines on authorship that are useful for scientists in all fields:”, suggesting that it is endorsing the ICMJE’s definition, but not being crystal clear about its actual position.


          WAME has changed, adjusted, modified or tweaked its position, and that this information has not been updated by Elsevier: The WAME web-site lists a date for its policies related to authorship and definitions as January 10, 2007 and defines authorship as “Criteria for Authorship. Everyone who has made substantial intellectual contributions to the study on which the article is based (for example, to the research question, design, analysis, interpretation, and written description) should be an author. It is dishonest to omit mention of someone who has participated in writing the manuscript (“ghost authorship”) and unfair to omit investigator who have had important engagement with other aspects of the work. (See the WAME policy statement, “Ghost Writing Initiated by Commercial Companies”)”. In that document, we may find the following official position: “Ghost authorship exists when someone has made substantial contributions to writing a manuscript and this role is not mentioned in the manuscript itself. WAME considers ghost authorship dishonest and unacceptable. Ghost authors generally work on behalf of companies, or agents acting for those companies, with a commercial interest in the topic, and this compounds the problem.”

          JAMA (
          “Authorship Criteria and Contributions and Authorship Form: Each author should have participated sufficiently in the work to take public responsibility for appropriate portions of the content. One or more authors should take responsibility for the integrity of the work as a whole, from inception to published article. According to the guidelines of the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) as revised in 2013,4 authorship credit should be based on the following 4 criteria: (1) substantial contributions to conception or design of the work, or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; and (2) drafting of the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and (3) final approval of the version to be published; and (4) agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.”
          This statement or any other part of the Instructions for Authors does not mention any thing about guest or ghost authors.

          “Manuscripts submitted for publication must list all authors, including the person who drafted the original manuscript and including paid or unpaid medical writers (‘ghost writers’).”

          1) Elsevier considers ghost authorship to be unethical.
          2) The ICMJE considers ghost authorship to be unethical.
          3) JAMA claims to follow ICMJE authorship guidelines.
          4) COPE considers ghost authorship to be unethical.
          5) WAME considers ghost authorship to be unethical.
          6) ORI and Springer do not seem to have a clearly defined policy.

          a) Elsevier is a paying member of COPE and is most likely COPE’s most important client member based on number of journals, even dedicating an entire page to COPE:
          b) Gøtzsche et al. (2007) claim that “Ghost authorship in industry-initiated trials is very common.” ( and found that statisticians were the ghost authors in 75% of cases. Wager states “The question of whether writers merit authorship if they are involved only at the publication stage of a study has not been resolved.” (
          c) Elsevier is an ORCID member:
          d) Elsevier serves on the CrossRef board of directors.

          1. A very interesting new development, most likely as a splinter from the STAP stem cell case involving Obokata’s 2011 PhD thesis which plagiarized huge chunks of NIH web-site information. Lawyers in Japan are now beginning to question the legality of services offered by companies that offer “ghost author” services, particularly when writing PhD theses. This is a massive development and I am not aware of similar legal challenges elsewhere in the developed world, at least. But if cases actually emerge of companies or individuals that ghost wrote PhD theses (and by extension scientific papers), without due mention anywhere in the final product (thesis or paper), or during the publishing process (e.g., submission, acknowledgements, letter to editor/publisher), then this could be a big game changer with massive negative retroactive repurcussions. I actually favour this crack-down. I “feel” that there are likely many who have profited, either though positions, salaries, grants, or otherwise, including obtaining a thesis, based on their ability to pay massive fees for ghost-writers’ efforts. The crack-down must thus be dual: on the authors and universities that have permitted this unethical (and now possibly illegal) activity to have taken place and on the ghost-authors or companies offering such services, who have failed their moral/ethical (and now possibly legal) responsibilities in ensuring that due credit should have been mentioned, and given.

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