Academia and Ghostwriting Don’t Mix, Part 2

Back in 2005, I wrote a long post about why I won’t ghostwrite student essays. I will—the professor permitting—help graduate students with editing and formatting theses for readability and conformity to style guides, and I will help academics revise their theses for publication as books. I don’t get that much call to do this, in part, I suspect, because of the very marginal salaries paid to academics and the comparatively high fees I charge. (And the better university presses may still have enough editorial staff available to provide support for their authors.)

I’m also talking to my colleague Max Hansen about helping entrepreneurs write articles for business journals. He has done this before with some success. Most of these journals are published by academic institutions, but the people we would be working for are not academics. If they were, they wouldn’t need help to be able to write in an academic style. Instead, they’re real-world experts who want to share their hands-on knowledge with an academic audience. They don’t need ghostwriters to be their brains, only to be their interpreters.

Researchers within the academy can no doubt benefit from good editors—many write jargon impenetrable even to their peers—but the condition of promotion in an academic job is the production and publication of original research. Original. As in, you do it yourself. Depending on your field, you might actually be doing it with a team of junior assistants, but at the very least you are directing that team.

I was trained as a classical philologist. That means I studied Greek and Latin language and literature. It’s not a discipline that accepts multi-authored papers for considerations of tenure. You and the primary sources and the secondary literature to which you are attempting to add have to sit down and wrestle your way to a new and preferably useful perspective on works more than 2000 years old. This can on occasion be a tiny bit challenging, so philologists seize eagerly on every fad in literary criticism—usually about 10 years after the English department has declared it passé. I thought I had a pretty good angle, myself (examining Greek and Roman drama through the lens of modern performance), but had to leave the profession about ten years ago with my dissertation unfinished and my hypotheses unproven.

Academia is a tough row to hoe. Entry-level jobs set assistant professors Sisyphean tasks: they are supposed to simultaneously teach, publish, and do committee work. Even if they do all of this and have respectable peer-reviewed journal articles and a monograph by the time they’ve made it through six years, the university may decide to deny them tenure so it can hire someone cheaper rather than promoting them, and they’ll have to leave and start over somewhere else. That’s if a newly-minted PhD can get a job in the first place, of course. Small surprise that I know an English PhD working for a web design firm, a Latinist at ILM, and a Greek scholar building Lotus applications.

Today I received an offer of work from a desperate young philologist whose name I won’t mention in the hopes that this person will see sense and opt out of career self-immolation. Let’s call this person “Ou Tis.” (Classics joke. If you don’t get it, read the Cyclops scene in the Odyssey.) Due to extreme pressure to publish, Ou Tis wanted to hire me to write articles for peer-reviewed journals, and eventually a book. Because of my background, Ou Tis thought I would be qualified to produce work of sufficient quality.

Never mind the fact that I left academia in 1998 and am decidedly behind on current scholarship. I do live near an excellent research library. I could, in theory, catch up.

But I won’t.

First, I respect my former colleagues far too much to help someone I don’t even know get out  of doing the work they had to do in order to get ahead in the profession.

Second, though I think there are real problems with the tenure system and the expectations placed on junior faculty, cheating is not the way to fix it.

Third, I can pretty much guarantee that Ou Tis doesn’t make in a year what it would cost to have me write an academic book, and it’s not as though the publisher is going to provide a huge advance. (The retail price of academic books is shocking, in part because print runs are so small, and in part because of the cost of photo permissions and other copyright clearances. Scholars do not get rich publishing books for other scholars.) So it’s not as though Ou Tis can even offer me a fee of a size that would provide me with an ethical dilemma.

Read my lips, folks. No medical ghostwriting. No academic ghostwriting. There are times when you have to do your own work.

If you want help popularizing that original research, now—then we can talk.

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