When is it ethical to write and let others take credit?

Image: Leonid Pasternak via Wikimedia Commons

Is it wrong to write a paper for a student? This seems like a black-and-white ethical issue, but having now seen some comments from people with a very different cultural perspective, I’m trying to think about it more carefully.

This occurred to me when I saw that the Pakistani tech journalist and entrepreneur Hira Saeed, posted this question on her Facebook page:

This calls for a debate from the freelance writers.

What do you guys think about the ethical ground[s] of offering Academic Writing services where people take money to get school/universities assignments done?

I have seen people paying thousands for their thesis and dissertation because of multiple reasons which they know better.

I am personally against it. When I first started writing, I used to pass these assignments forward, but now I refuse them upfront. There are many Facebook groups where people are still making the assignments against a fee. It irks me a lot.

Should it be an ethical call where we all REFUSE to work on assignments? What do you guys think?

It’s clear that the person paying others to do his paper is wrong. But is the writer who is writing the paper for hire doing something unethical, or does that only apply to the person who hires him?

I was surprised to see some comments on Saeed’s page in support of the practice. (The authors of these comments are Facebook posters who are not native English speakers; try not to hold their grammar against them.)

It’s really bad but writers get [a] good amount of money, they won’t be able to refuse. . . . [P]eople are earning too much because of the thesis writing and solely depend on this.”

“It should be your choice. Because a lot of times they are homeworks which have nothing to do with real learning, specifically in USA there are number of academic and research papers have to been written just to pass a communication class which don’t teach you anything about formal communication . . . [W]hen one has to do two jobs to pay the fees of school which they still be in debt when retire[d], using the time in a job or writing such [a] paper paying cheap[ly] in [a] third-world country seem[s] better. And when receiving the offer you may not know the reason behind it.”

“[N]othing wrong if deserving writers do it. [A]fter all we all sell out our services against salaries, more or less.”

“[I]f one does not do it they will get it done from someone else. If a Pakistani freelancer says NO an american will say YES.”

“I definitely think it’s highly unethical and I refuse these assignments as well.”

“Its highly unethical. The purpose of having assignments gets diminished, since others are doing it for the students. It can challenge the student to go beyond their own comfort zones, but it is essential for their own growth.”

“It’s unethical and should be illegal. I don’t see a need for debate. Axact et all have made cheating so common and acceptable. . . . [T]o the nation cheating/stealing (plagiarism, corruption) has been normalized. For the longest time I’ve been wanting to do a video on educating why it’s wrong because I know a lot of people just don’t know how or why it’s wrong.”

Ok [I] have got another perspective here and [I] am talking about specifically from the point of view of thesis. I have seen universities being uninterested in genuine research. What they want is a paper for formality. And the students consider it a formality as well. Even if they do this by their own there isn’t any learning in the process. Its a formality from both the sides. . . . Secondly again its they who have to defend it not writer. Without proper understanding they cannot defend their papers in front of the committee. They can still grasp a lot in this process if not the fullest extent.”

“Running a digital agency, I have had this debate alot of times. Here are some of the views that I have gathered:

From writer’s perspective:
*we get good amount of money for the assignments that are in compliance with our studies
*academic writing challenges our skills and makes us a better writer
*some may say it’s unethical but it depends on the conditions of client

From client’s perspective:
*we are over burdened with all the work and need a relief in the form of outsourcing
*most of the assignments that we submit are not even read by the professor and we don’t want to invest our time in this
*we are not competent but we want our work to be the best.”

“Well it’s unethical but definitely a tough call for someone who’s in immediate need of cash especially when they’re doing something which is socially acceptable.”

“In my case, it was also a reminder of how elite/most likely privileged race is again exploiting the labour of the developing world without giving any credit and getting away by only paying peanuts.”

“Academic writings, blogs, assignments are not something that can be patented and are transferable to whoever is willing to pay. The publisher or university expects the original candidate to perform the work.”

The devil’s advocate

The mind rebels at these perspectives. All of us learned that allowing others to do our academic work, and then taking credit for it, is unethical and in violation of every academic honor code.

But for a moment, consider what happens in the corporate and higher academic world.

People hire others to write copy for them all the time.

I’ve written articles on behalf of companies, and I’m ghostwriting my second book right now.

In my particular case, I’ve gotten credit, but that’s because my name has some value in itself. Lots of writers write articles and other corporate copy that is published under others’ names — I know plenty of PR people who do this, for example. Typically (but not always) the articles are based on the putative author’s ideas, and certainly the putative author approves them.

Here is an experience I had prior to the publication of my first book: A superior of mine who had a column in a magazine thought he’d help me publicize the book. He took a piece of the book, modified it slightly, and planned to submit it under his own name.

When I found out, I was livid. His perspective was that the writing belonged to our company, so it was fine to publish it in his column. Eventually, with the help of a colleague in our PR department, we convinced him that culture at our company was that people did not take credit for others’ work. (This was a good thing, because the next step on my part would have involved bloodshed.)

In academic settings, the leader of a lab may be listed on papers as the first author, even if she had very little to do with the research and someone else wrote the paper. Everyone knows this goes on, and no one seems to have a problem with it.

The question of credit appears to be contextual. So in place of the hard-and-fast rule we imagine we are following, you end up with this:

It is wrong to take credit for another’s work except:

  • In corporate settings, when the writer is creating content for hire to be published externally and the writer is aware of how it will be used.
  • In collaborative (lab) settings, when people are collaborating on research, and the writer is part of a team.

It is always wrong to turn in an assignment or paper that is not your own work.

And is it wrong for the writer to work for hire in these settings? Are the Pakistani paper-writers that the Facebook posters are defending in the wrong? I think they are. But I recognize that their work exists only because of the questionable ethics of those that hire them. And as a writer who works for hire, at the very least, I can see their point.

Imagine for a moment that you were face-to-face with one of those Pakistani paper-writers, who cited the demand for his work, and many corporate settings in which people ghostwrite for money. What would you tell him?

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  1. Great topic. “But for a moment, consider what happens in the corporate and higher academic world.” – In the former, I see reuse without attribution (frequently), and this is wrong, period. It no only weakens working relationships, it establishes (or perpetuates) false competencies.

    Book co-authors and contributors are to be acknowledged, too. Same outcomes will emerge (as above), I believe.

    (Professional) writers should refuse these opportunities (to write 100% anonymously for $.) Transparency beats currency.

      1. Can you point me to an explanation? I don’t see how I eliminated an industry…and if I had that power, I’d choose the “Lose 21-lbs in 14 days!!!!” industry, instead!

        1. You said “(Professional) writers should refuse these opportunities (to write 100% anonymously for $.) Transparency beats currency.”

          I am a professional writer and I write lots of stuff for clients to use where I don’t get credit. Marketing copy. Tag lines. Suggested edits on books. My name doesn’t appear next to these, and I’m perfectly fine with that . . . and so is every copywriter. It’s our work.

          That’s not at all the same as writing a paper for someone who passes it off as her own work.

          When you read a company description on a Web site, you don’t care who wrote it, you just care if it’s clear and accurate and intriguing.

          When you read an academic paper, you care an awful lot who wrote it, and passing someone else’s work off as your own is unethical.

  2. The person making this comment just doesn’t get it. “It should be your choice. Because a lot of times they are homeworks which have nothing to do with real learning, specifically in USA there are number of academic and research papers have to been written just to pass a communication class which don’t teach you anything about formal communication .”

    In fact, the entire PURPOSE of the writing assignment is to help you learn how to write and how to effectively communicate an idea or explain something. The ONLY way you learn to write is by writing. It really doesn’t matter how much information you have between your ears; if you can’t find a way to take the information that’s between your ears and put it between the ears of other people, how much you know is fundamentally irrelevant and wasted.

    1. This was exactly my response to this comment. It’s like this is all that is wrong in the first place.

  3. You know, I don’t think it’s difficult to determine when it’s right or wrong. Here is a simple test.

    If it matters *who* wrote the work, not just what was written, then it’s wrong to pay someone else to do it without attribution. If it matters who wrote the work, not just what was written then its wrong to write it for someone else for payment unless they will attribute the work to you.

    E.g. if it’s an essay that’s being graded to assess your academic ability, then it’s wrong for someone else to write it. Another example would be a signature. Or an autobiography.

  4. I agree with Brendan Hills’ comment. Copywriting is form; academic work assumes (and is judged on) originality of content. When you submit a college paper or thesis, you are saying “this is my work, my ideas, my expression.” Corporate technical documentation or marketing material can perfectly well be done by anonymous committee and indeed that’s what we all assume happens. Not so with academic papers.

    When I was in college decades ago, I was able to cash in on a relatively rare talent: I could touch-type. In those days before the personal computer, college students without that skill would pay to have someone type up their papers. Once a fellow student brought me his manuscript, and in certain spots he included photocopies of a couple of pages taken from a book. “Just type those parts in there where it’s marked,” he said. I refused the job, on the grounds that I wouldn’t be an accomplice in plagiarism. He was sincerely baffled, but I hope he learned something from what I explained to him. Similarly, professional writers should refuse on principle to do uncredited writing for students or doctoral candidates–although they violate no norms or expectations by writing for hire anonymously in a business context.

  5. I have a circumstantial question. I am being brought on as a volunteer for a non-profit organization and my superior is having me author articles but sign them with only her name. Would this fall into the category of “corporate for hire” or something else?