No, I’m not talking about ghosts writing. I’m talking about writers paid to write literary or journalistic works, speeches, or other prose officially credited to another person as the author.[1] They abound in large numbers in nooks, crannies, and skyscrapers all over New York. Movie stars, finance gurus, politicians, and putative office-holders use them all the time. They write euphemistic autobiographies, heart-wrenching memoirs, online hits, offline low blows, social media trolls, and music. It’s a widely known secret that ghostwriters also write rumors, code, malware, Facebook entries, and mountains of Twitter shams, slams, and scams. But this narrow blog is only about legit ghostwriters, and there are many.

To answer the question, “Is ghostwriting ethical?”, we must first examine the reciprocal: the ethics of authorship. There is pride in authorship, a word that has a widely accepted definition. Miriam-Webster cuts “authorship” three ways: it’s the profession of writing, it’s the source of a piece of writing,  and it’s the state or act of writing.[2] Whichever slice you like, ghostwriting doesn’t seem to be authoring. The Fiction Dictionary[3] doesn’t define authorship or author, other than to dig deeply into “author-as-character,” “authorial intrusion” (intrusive author), and “authorial-Omniscient voice.”

Jane Robbins,[4] wrote the definitive answer to this blog’s question. She titled her 2015 article, “The Ethics of Authorship: Is Ghostwriting Plagiarism?”[5] Confused? Is she talking about the ghostwriter’s words, which presumably are not plagiarized, or is she talking about the person paying the ghostwriter and taking literary credit for those paid-for-words? Ms. Robbins correctly answers her own question: “Plagiarism is theft or co-optation of original work (authorship, a status connected to intellectual property) without permission or attribution by an individual. Ghostwriting is production of original work (authorship) for transfer of exclusive use by, and ownership of, another by mutual consent and, usually, remuneration. This word is specifically chosen to indicate a financial relationship . . .  Ghostwriting is an exchange relationship, or transaction, sometimes a ‘work for hire,’ whereas plagiarism is a one-way, anonymous act.”

Her answer is legally correct. Ghostwriting is not plagiarism. But the ethics of authorship are not, in my opinion, resolved by eliminating plagiarism. There’s the question of disclosure, which is not legally required but may be morally suspect, in some limited circumstances. For example, having someone ghostwrite a serious research piece and claiming credit for the scientific results is dishonest at best and shameful at worst. In some situations, you could easily win on the plagiarism charge and lose your job at the same time. Any situation where the fact of authorship is important is red-flagged for both the ghostwriter and the payor. The breach lies not in the ethics of writing, but rather in the ethics of publication. It’s not milk and honey; it’s fire and ice.

Gary L StuartI am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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[3] Authored by Laurie Henrie and published by The Story Press, Cincinnati, OH, 1995.

[4] Jane Robbins teaches and thinks about the messy and complex integration of leadership, ethics, organization, and innovation. Follow on Twitter: @janeerobbins. She is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, an attorney, and the co-author of “Deconstructing the Administrative State: The Fight for Liberty.”