“Academia and fraud are no strangers,” Singh and Remenyi, 2015:1.

History tells us that cheating has been part of educational institutions in one way or another for a very long time. From using crib notes in exams; to getting hold of examination papers in advance; to creating fraudulent data and information for research reports. It is safe to say that in 2020, plagiarism and in particular, ghostwriting, are threatening the integrity of academia more than ever before (Singh and Remenyi, 2016:1).

While all academic misconduct is damaging to tertiary institutions, it is particularly interesting to see how the trend of ghostwriting is on the rise in South African institutions. The danger that comes with remote learning or COVID-19 crisis teaching and learning, is that the temptation to use these services is likely to increase. It is therefore of utmost importance to highlight these issues and increase awareness on the subject of academic misconduct and ghostwriting.

What is Ghostwriting?

Ghostwriting can be described as the practice of hiring a writer or writers, to create a writing piece according to a predefined style. The crux here is that none of the writing is credited to the author (or ghostwriter). While this has been part of the field of literature and the arts for many years; in most cases, this would be handled as a legal transaction between two individuals.  For example, the exchange usually entails an individual who outsources the task to someone else to produce a work in their field of interest or an autobiography – as they either don’t have the time or the skills to do so themselves (Singh and Remenyi, 2016:3).

In the academic field, ghostwriting is a type of misconduct. While being similar to plagiarism in that one turns in someone else’s work as your own, it is not actually the same. Unlike plagiarism (or kidnapping as the Latin word describes it), ghostwriting does not involve the theft of someone else’s work. It is more about lying about the authorship of the work. This is seen as serious academic misconduct, potentially even worse than plagiarism (Singh and Remenyi, 2015:3).

The impact of the Internet on Ghostwriting in South Africa

The Internet opened the market to ghostwriters. Initially, ghostwritten essays sold over the Internet were easily caught by anti-plagiarism software, writers have become great at overcoming this.  The Internet has turned ghostwriting into a global industry. Terms like ‘paper mill’ and ‘essay mill’ are often used to describe ghostwriting, and are usually the terms used for this kind of service. In short, the Internet has uplifted academic plagiarism from cut and paste or using a friend’s work, to a sophisticated process of acquiring services from an essay mill; acquiring completely original academic pieces and then submitting it as one’s own. Students are happy to use these services, either because they believe it is acceptable or because they feel they will not get caught by plagiarism software.

The promise of a plagiarism-free, legitimate paper is very attractive to a stressed-out student pressed for time. And it only takes a quick Google search to find a ghostwriter online within a particular field. And if students do not find them – they find students, through what seems like legitimate advertisements on social media and often even on official university marketing channels.  As visible in the images, these ghostwriting services make it seem completely acceptable to outsource academic work.

The Internet not only makes it easy to find ghostwriting services, but it also makes it hard to police. Someone might be selling essays in South Africa while being based in New York or Nairobi for example (Thomas, 2015).




How to Tackle Ghostwriting at Institutions

It is difficult to catch out a student if the assignment is original. Defending the assignment or dissertation is possible, as the student could have time to familiarise themselves with the work.  So if students and essay mills continually get away with exchanging cash for services without being caught – the business will continue to thrive.

According to Professor Adele Thomas, Professor Emeritus at the University of Johannesburg (2015), institutions have to tackle this unethical issue with zero tolerance. Students should be made aware of the pitfalls of cheating and must be taught techniques that better their academic writing skills. It should be about a culture of academic integrity, where the conversation around plagiarism and ghostwriting is open and transparent. The stance against the immorality of cheating, in whichever shape or form, should be loud and clear. The aim would be to internalise institutional values so that they become entrenched in practice and norm amongst students.

According to Singh and Remeny (2016), academic institutions are not only there to test the knowledge of students. “The purpose of a university…[is] also to inspire [students] to become lifelong learners.” This also means that institutions have an inherent obligation to ensure students see subject matter as both enjoyable and interesting. The hypothesis here is that if students see learning as a positive experience that is rewarding becoming specialised in their fields would be a natural side-effect. As a result, students would be less inclined to cheating.

Sources Consulted:

Thomas, A. 2015. Forget plagiarism: There’s a new and bigger threat to academic integrity. Mail & Guardian. 19 August. Available online: https://mg.co.za/article/2015-08-19-forget-plagiarism-theres-a-new-and-bigger-threat-to-academic-integrity/

Singh, S and Remenyi, D. 2016. Plagiarism and ghostwriting: The rise in academic misconduct. South African Journal of Science. 2016;112(5/6), Art. #2015-0300, 7 pages. Available online: http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2016/20150300


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