Ghostwriting (Global)

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Ghostwriting 🌍
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Location: Global
Definition: Attributing authorship of a personʼs writing to another person
Keywords: Global Writing Media Communication PR Authorship Ownership Concealment Elite
Clusters: Camouflage
Author: Frederick Piper
Affiliation: Alumnus, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

By Frederick Piper, Alumnus, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK

To ghostwrite is ʻto write on behalf of a person who is then credited as authorʼ (Collins English Dictionary). The practice of ghostwriting accompanies political communications, research for academic and medical practice, and cultural and creative arts. The ongoing ethical concerns over its use highlight its ambivalent context and consequences.

Ghostwriting is most common in the case of writing political speeches. The earliest reference to ghostwriting of political communications originates in antiquity: from Antiphon before 411 B.C., to Alexander the Great, and Roman leaders such as Nero and Caesar (Einhorn 1982: 41-2). Before the twentieth century, ghostwriting was seen as the ʻshady second cousins to plagiarismʼ (May 1953: 459). The demands of contemporary political communications have given way to a more sympathetic view of ghostwriting in politics.

Ghostwriting is employed by a majority of government leaders and in the private sector and academia (Einhorn 1982: 40-1). The impact of mass communication, such as radio broadcasting, televised debates and interviews has required public figures to voice continually amended or developed arguments. The social media platforms across the last decade scrutinise and circulate public performances indefinitely (Kahne and Bowyer 2018), which means political messages must be perfectly crafted and performed without fault. In these unforgiving circumstances, ghostwriters are employed to improve both the quality of content and the diversity of its delivery. While social media such as Twitter and Instagram enhance the impression that public figures publish original content themselves, much of it is also produced and managed by a team of ghostwriters. Donald Trump stands out as an example of a high-profile person managing his own Twitter account (Collins 2018).

Memoirs and autobiographies of prominent politicians are a natural extension of political communication (McCrum 2014). For the published memoirs titled Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton employed an extensive team of associates to research and write it for her (Farhi 2014). The ‘ghost’ in this particular example emerges only in reference to her research. The ghostwriting team is acknowledged on page 597 of her 635-page book. Ghostwriting proposes an ethical challenge: is it right that politicians take credit for work that was written by another (Farhi 2014)? The issue surfaced when Donald Trump declared his candidacy in the US presidential election with claiming that America needed ʻa leader that wrote The Art of the Dealʼ. In response, Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter for the 1987 bestseller, posted on Twitter to thank him for his endorsement (Mayer 2016). While humorous, the reaction to Trump’s announcement revealed a conflict of interest between commercialising oneʼs political perspective or maintaining honesty and integrity. Schwartz stated in an interview that ʻif he could lie about that on Day One… he is likely to lie about anythingʼ (Mayer 2016).

In journalism, op-ed pieces – guest editorial columns by prominent figures, written to raise awareness of an issue or urge a policy change – are often published under the name of one individual, but are written by another (Gillmore 2011). While for critics speechwriting may be acceptable, journalistic ghostwriting is ʻa false byline… an outright, direct lieʼ (Gillmore 2011). Another manifestation of journalistic ghostwriting is ghost blogging, stating an author of a personal blog different from the actual one (Gallicano et al. 2013). This practice is used by bloggers to mitigate the amount of time required to maintain a blog and to respond to comments or other blogs (Gallicano et al. 2013: 4).

Ghostwriting is common in the medical research profession and has two distinct forms. Honorary authorship (or guest authorship) is the practice of signing an esteemed member of the academic community as co-author of a piece of medical research in order to raise the profile of the original researcher (Flanagin et al. 1998: 222, Ross et al. 2008). In cases when the true authorship could inhibit the publication of research or its reception, honorary authorship is also used to conceal the names of real authors.

Commercial research interests in medical research are expressed in the practice of ghost management. This term describes corporate commissioning and managing of research sympathetic to the commercial interests of the company (Sismondo 2007). For example, pharmaceutical companies will commission research, persuade prominent academics to be named as research authors, fund the research and facilitate its publication in the most prestigious medical journals (Sismondo 2007: 1429). The ‘ghost’ element in this process is the opacity of this practice and the use of informal connections to achieve results. Companies such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline are known to have made use of such practices (ibid.).

Some suggest that the prominence of honorary authorship and ghost management in the medical research profession could be attributed to the fact that authorship is traditionally seen as less important in this community (Barbour 2010: 1), thereby making the academic community an easy target for commercial interests. Those who depend on the integrity of medical research – public policy makers and drug recipients – are concerned about the lack of transparency and adherence to the standards of ethical and scientific research in the use of such data as it is not necessarily employed in the best interest of the public (Sismondo 2007: 1431).

Ghostwriting is well established in art, literature and popular culture. Questions over the true authorship of prominent cultural contributions pervade modern history. Shakespeare’s plays serve as a notable example (Garber 2010). Those supporting the thesis that Shakespeare employed ghostwriters look to clues within his plays and argue that the knowledge of the law, classics, and a comfortable representation of aristocratic life would not have been available to a largely uneducated ‘plebeian’. They propose that lawyers such as Francis Bacon and noblemen such as the Earl of Oxford, themselves playwrights, could have acted as Shakespeareʼs ghostwriters (Garber 2010: 1-2). A notorious example of ghostwritten fiction are the serialised American children’s stories The Hardy Boys by authors ʻCarolyn Keene’ and ‘Franklin W. Dixon’. The names were found to be pseudonyms for numerous ghostwriters who have written them according to a stylistic template that set the guidelines for the tone, style, significant dates, names and speech patterns (Andrews 2013).

In contrast to fiction, ghostwriting in music has been less benign. Some of the controversies revolve around the ownership of lucrative royalties. Classical composers working for major animation production companies were denied the royalties for their work. Instead, these were collected by the company executives, acknowledged as musicians in the credits of the animations their companies produced (Robb 1998). In hip-hop and rap music, the artists connect with the audience through personal stories, experiences and lamentations. Ghostwritten lyrics therefore constitute a false representation and are seen as a perversion of the art form (Thompson 2014). This contrasts with pop music in which ghostwriting is an integral part of the production process (Robinson 2015). It can appear in several guises, from preventing the disclosure of ghostwriters' involvement with a legally binding agreement, to acknowledging the ghostwriter in the credits as a co-author.


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Barbour, V. 2010. ʻHow ghost-writing threatens the credibility of medical knowledge and medical journalsʼ, Haematologica, 95(1), 1-2

Collins, T. 2018. ʻTrump’s itchy Twitter thumbs are redefining ‘modern” presidentsʼ, CNET,

Einhorn, L. 1982. ʻThe ghosts unmasked: A review of literature on speechwritingʼ, Communication Quarterly, 30(1), 41-47

Farhi, P. 2014. ʻWho actually wrote that political memoir?ʼ, Washington Post, 9 June

Flanagin A. et al. 1998. ʻPrevalence of Articles with Honorary Authors and Ghost Authors in Peer-Reviewed Medical Journalsʼ, JAMA, 280(3):222–224

Gallicano, T. D., Brett, K., and Hopp, T. 2013. ʻIs ghost blogging like speechwriting? A survey of practitioners about the ethics of ghost bloggingʼ, Public Relations Journal, 7(3), 1-41

Garber, M. 2010. Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as uncanny causality. Routledge.

Gillmor, D. 2011. ʻThe ghostwritten op-ed: an unacceptable deceptionʼ, The Guardian,

Kahne, J. and Bowyer, B. 2018. ʻThe political significance of social media activity and social networksʼ, Political Communication, 1-24

May, E. 1953. ʻGhostwriting and Historyʼ, The American Scholar, 22(4), 459-465

Mayer, J. 2016. ʻDonald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells Allʼ, The New Yorker,

McCrum, R. 2014. ʻBestselling ghostwriter reveals the secret world of the author for hire,ʼ The Guardian,

Robb, D. 1998. 'Composers say they're paupers in royalty game', The Hollywood Reporter, September 18,

Robinson, P. 2015. 'How Widespread Is Ghostwriting in Music and How OK With It Should You Be?', Noisey, August 15,

Ross, J. S., Hill, K. P., Egilman, D. S., and Krumholz, H. M. 2008. ʻGuest authorship and ghostwriting in publications related to rofecoxib: a case study of industry documents from rofecoxib litigationʼ, JAMA, 299(15), 1800-1812

Sismondo, S. 2007. ʻGhost management: how much of the medical literature is shaped behind the scenes by the pharmaceutical industry?ʼ, PLoS Medicine, 4(9), e286

Thompson, S. 2014. ʻThe secret ghostwriters of Hip Hop,ʼ BBC News,