On Friday (May 4) the evening current affairs show, The Project (7 pm weeknights on +HR=E) ran an illuminating segment on one facet of cheating at universities: ghostwritten essays. Ghostwriters are authors who agree to write an item while passing it off as another’s work. Within the commercial publishing industry, ghostwriting is viewed as acceptable to meet consumer demand, to ensure high quality content, or to protect the identity of the author.
Within academia however, ghostwriting is unacceptable. While not identical to plagiarism, the intent is similar as the client seeks to pass the work off as their own. In order to protect the value of qualifications, it is essential that all graduates meet the academic requirements of a degree. Ghostwriting undermines our confidence in universities as we cannot be certain that graduates are actually competent. There’s also the ethical dimension where dishonesty is not permitted.
Academic ghostwriters like predatory publishers stridently promote themselves through unsolicited emails. The Project investigation revealed that ghostwriting agencies have turned to social media “influencers” to promote their brands. These influencers may have a fan base of several hundred thousand people, a massive potential client base for ghostwriters.
Speaking as someone who has graded undergraduate reports, we can find plagiarism quite easily. The Turnitin software is helpful, but if the marker happens to have two plaigiarised reports in the pile, the features are easy to pick up. Usually the reports will share errors in figures or the overall structure, upon closer inspection entire paragraphs are identical.
I’m not aware of ghostwriting being an issue in engineering and physical sciences where reports are usually on a very specific area that requires intimate knowledge of the course, laboratory equipment and procedures. I can imagine that it is a serious issue for the humanities where essays are more open in terms of possible content (i.e. analysing well-known literature).
This experience leads me to suspect that ghostwriting is much harder to identify than plagiarism, indeed I’ve never marked a report that I suspected was ghostwritten. I would need to know the student’s proficiency in English and match it up with the quality of the grammar in their report. Engineers don’t get to know the students that they tutor well enough to build up such familiarity.
Luckily we may not need to look for ghostwriting, thanks to ghostwriting agencies who have identified a new revenue stream: blackmail their clients after they submit the “work”! That’s right, pay the ghostwriter more money or they’ll report you to the university. Isn’t capitalism great?
That brings me to the point of this post, two questions that I have. (1) Why do students employ ghostwriters? (2) Why do ghostwriters ghostwrite? Since 1980, enrolments have more than trebled, outstripping population growth. Universities have gone from zero fees to student loans, from rectors to overpaid vice-chancellors, from blue-skies research to clickbait, the university sector’s volte-face over the past 30 years can answer these questions.
Why do students employ ghostwriters?
University entrance requirements are hilariously low which makes university accessible to many high-schoolers who lack the drive or the competence to succeed at tertiary study. With 42 Level 3 credits in the right places, you can get in even though you would have failed NCEA Level 3! As another example, VUW has a metric to determine if a student has guaranteed entry. My score was nearly double the minimum requirement.
The low entry standards situation is perfectly acceptable for universities. This is because New Zealand universities are expected to generate surpluses, which means that there is an incentive to enrol as many students as possible, even if they don’t have what it takes to complete the coursework.
More students means more revenue for universities, in the form of government funding, and tuition fees. This funding model has turned students into consumers who are determined to get a return on their investment. Failure has gone from no big deal (ask Steven Joyce) to becoming a very expensive problem.
With the stresses of struggling to keep up with a difficult workload, familial pressure and the burden of student debt, a student in such a situation may turn to a ghostwriter just to keep the wolves at bay. Less charitable scenarios may be conjured up too. An arrogant, entitled student with wealthy parents can’t be arsed doing any work hires a ghostwriter to keep up pretenses while they live it up.
Now that tertiary education has been turned into a commodity, can we really be surprised that integrity goes out the window as students seek to get value for money? An investment which is viewed as a stepping stone to a lucrative career instead of an intellectually enriching experience in itself.
The solution lies in the past. Remove the absurd corporatist models that universities need to follow, reduce intakes to the capable and committed (while providing more suitable training opportunities outside of university), and remove the spectre of financial expense. If people aren’t pushed to the point of desperation, they will not feel the need to hire ghostwriters.
Why do ghostwriters ghostwrite?
Another big problem with high student numbers is what happens once they graduate. Are there enough vacancies in their chosen field? What if there aren’t enough jobs for their cohort? What educational background does a ghostwriter have? Yes, academic ghostwriters are university graduates! I wonder if it was the dream job they had in mind when they turned up to their first lecture?
Ideally students would choose to study subjects and career paths that they are passionate about. One would only abandon that to become a ghostwriter out of necessity. It should come as no surprise that increasing the number of graduates means that some will miss out on jobs in their chosen field since there is no shortage of workers. Which suits industry just fine since they seek to suppress wages.
Most of us need to make money to survive, if a graduate can’t work in their chosen sector, then they may as well put their skills to use elsewhere. Why not capitalise on the anxieties and desperation of current undergraduates and become a ghostwriter? I can even imagine that dobbing in clients would be a satisfying exercise, a mockery of an economic model that failed the ghostwriter.
Once again, this is a charitable interpretation, a graduate might get work in their field, but find themselves unsatisfied with their earnings (in many cases, rightly so). Ghostwriting may offer better pay and conditions, which makes it an attractive line of work. Testimonies from ghostwriters confirm my suspicions.
The solution from this side of the problem also requires a reduction in enrolments, ignoring claims that we have skill shortages so that all graduates can find work in their chosen field. Correspondingly, we require better funding models for academic research, well-paid and secure career opportunities for early career researchers.
Dick Wilkins’ account of the old Department of Agriculture gives a brilliant insight into how a supposedly inefficient government research department was able to generate enormous wealth for New Zealand. The corporatisation of government science by the National Party in the 1990s produced AgResearch, which is ineffective and in a slow death spiral. It’s obvious which model is better to follow.
New Zealand is near the bottom of the OECD in terms of spending on R&D as a proportion of GDP. Just look at the countries that top the list, there are the secure societies of Scandanavia and Japan, the rapid rise in living standards of South Korea, and the military developments made by Israel. R&D is one of those areas where throwing money at it gets results, in terms of new knowledge and prosperous societies.
The problem of academic ghostwriting is a problem exacerbated by the nature of today’s university sector. Management has developed an obsession with enrolling as many students as possible with the aim of getting as much money out of them as possible. Entry standards are inadequate, and no consideration is given to the matter of whether all graduates can gain relevant employment or not.
The combination of desperate students and embittered, underutilised graduates has created a “willing buyer, willing seller” market for ghostwriting services. A market so large, that social media stars are now shilling for ghostwriting agencies.
The most effective way to stop this problem is to change the university sector. Abolish tuition fees, implement a universal student allowance, increase the entry requirements so that all entrants have a good chance of success and are not in a race to the bottom against other graduates in the job market. Increase funding for research to make it a rewarding career path from which society will benefit. In doing so, the demand and supply for academic ghostwriting will vanish.
The malaise in the university sector today is responsible for the proliferation in academic misconduct, only by ending the disastrous neo-liberal experiment with our universities will we see an end to cheating.