Carl Elliott is the author of White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine. Elliott is a professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the Believer, Slate, the London Review of Books, and the American Prospect. His six previous books include Better Than Well, Prozac As a Way of Life, Rules of Insanity, and A Philosophical Disease.
This post originally appeared at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm blog.
A number of years ago, a university public-relations official approached me with an invitation. Her office was coordinating a series of columns called “Health Talk and You,” which were published in about 50 newspapers around the state. The columns were short, simple, and straightforward – about 500 words, she said. Would I be interested in taking part? Without giving the question much thought, I said yes.
Then I read her email more carefully. I had initially thought I was being asked to write an article. In fact, however, I was being asked to lend my name to an article which the public relations office would ghostwrite, but which would be published under my byline. A reporter would interview me on the topic of my choice and write an article based on the interview. When I called the public relations officer back, I explained that it seemed deceptive to take credit for an article that I didn’t actually write. She bristled; the conversation turned chilly; and by the time we hung up, we had both agreed that I would make a very poor “author.”
Given how badly that brief conversation went, it was probably best that I didn’t mention my other reservation about the article. What bothered me was not just the deception. I was also afraid someone might think I had actually written the kind of embarrassing propaganda and mindless fluff typically generated by a public-relations office. Seeing that column appear in a newspaper under my name would have been like watching myself recite the prepared text in a hostage video.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a problem with fakery, given the right circumstances. I can read a ghosted celebrity autobiography with the same pleasurable suspension of disbelief with which I watch professional wrestlers. It’s just that I never really thought of the university as the aesthetic equivalent of the World Wrestling Federation.
Of course, it is possible that I overreacted. After all, the ghosted columns had been appearing for years, presumably under the names of other faculty members. Maybe my colleagues simply put the columns in the same category as the throwaway newsletters, promotional flyers, annual reports and spam email generated by administrative offices all over the university. Nobody even reads that material, much less worries about its provenance. Or maybe they thought the columns were like speeches delivered by university presidents or high-ranking deans, which most of us simply assume to be written by a ghostwriter. “Bureaucratic plagiarism” is the term used by Gavin Moodie to describe this kind of fuzziness around authorship, and as he points out, it raises an uncomfortable question. If we don’t allow university students to hire ghostwriters, why do we allow it for university administrators?
When plagiarism lands an administrator in trouble, it is usually plagiarism of the more familiar variety. Last summer, for example, Philip Baker, the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, delivered a convocation speech that was lifted — word for word, according to medical students following on their smartphones — from a Stanford University commencement address by Harvard surgeon and New Yorker staff writer, Atul Gawande. Baker was eventually forced to resign.
Simply employing a ghostwriter, however, is often not seen as a problem — unless the ghostwriter is also a plagiarist. In 2007, for example, when several newspaper columns published by William Meehan, the president of Jacksonville State University, were found to contain material plagiarized from various websites, his excuse was that the columns had actually been ghosted by the director of the university news bureau. (Meehan was later accused, apparently with credible evidence, of having plagiarized parts of hisdoctoral dissertation.) Similarly, when the president of Wesley College, Scott D. Miller, was accused of plagiarizing sections of a speech written by the president of Connecticut College, he told reporters that he had “a number of people who do some drafting for me.” Miller said, “I don’t remember the specifics of who wrote it.”
Of course, paying a ghost to write your speeches is not like paying a ghost to write your doctoral dissertation or your academic articles. Neither is rubber-stamping an administrative document produced by an assistant. As Brian Martin has pointed out, bureaucratic plagiarism (or what he calls “institutionalized plagiarism”) is standard practice in many large, hierarchical organizations, where well-paid, high-status leaders take credit for written material produced by others who rank below them on the organizational ladder. University administrators sometimes compare themselves to corporate executives, who are not generally criticized for having ghostwriters on staff. But administrators, of course, are not executives. Most of them are tenured members of the faculty. Should they be judged by the norms and standards of corporations? Or should they be judged by the standards usually applied to faculty and students?
Of course, administrators could not really be expected to produce such a vast amount of written material without a small army of “communications professionals.” Yet, as Benjamin Ginsberg argues in his excellent book, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University, all this written material is subsidized by student tuition, which continues to rise dramatically. Wouldn’t the budget for university-subsidized ghostwriters be a good place to start cutting? Also, paying ghosts to write for senior administrators seems unfair to the rest of us. As Ginsberg says, “faculty members who plagiarize must do so at their own expense.”
Wrestler photo from BigStock.