© Norman Sperling, November 14, 2010
Medical ethicists are in an uproar over misleading medical research articles and presentations being "ghost-written". They're confusing 2 different activities, and blaming the wrong one.
One thing that's going on is ghost writing. That is often good.
The other thing that's going on is distorting results. That is bad.
Experts with talent and training in research can be wonderful at that, but often don't write well. And people who write well are rarely talented or trained in research. In your own experience, you know several people who are great at doing something but poor at expressing it, and several people who are great at expressing things but not so great at originating all of them.
So people who aren't so great at writing, who need to write something for publication, enlist help. They can ask friends, they can hire writers, or their sponsors can hire writers. As long as the output is correct, nobody is deceived about the scholarly content. While literary sleuths dispute "true" authorship of literary gems, that never happens with these reports.
I've done some of this. Here's an example from when I was an editor at Sky & Telescope magazine: An interesting article arrived with a turgid title something like "Thermoluminescence and Cathodoluminescence in Chondritic Meteorites". I changed the title to "Meteorites that Glow". I bet a lot more people read the article than would have with the stilted, stuffy title. That time I was paid by the publisher rather than the writer or the writer's sponsor, so that could be called "editing" instead of "ghost writing", but it's doing the same thing.
Turning ineffective writing into something people actually like to read takes talent and training that is rarely part of researchers' education. It's fair to have a ghostwriter as long as the meaning doesn't change, and the researcher approves everything the ghostwriter did before it's published. It doesn't matter who pays the ghostwriter, though it's cleanest if the money is laundered through the researcher.
Changing the meaning is entirely different. Someone thinks that by lying about reality, they can make quick money. The original author may have at least as much motivation as a hired writer. Warping can be done by ghostwriters, editors, publishers, and others. Of course reality must always win in the end. Concealed harm grows too blatant to hide. Legal settlements for causing harm can bankrupt corporations. Even the accusation can cripple a researcher's career.
The flap over ghostwriters is mis-aimed. Attack liars and cheaters for lying and cheating. Don't attack people who are good at expressing things for being good at expressing things.