Since the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers (Deutscher Hochschulverband – DHV) more than once called on to declare the submission of academic qualification texts written by an academic ghostwriter academic fraud and thus, a criminal offence, the concepts of academic fraud and academic ghostwriting have often been mingled.
Even though it is true that those concepts overlap, a closer examination reveals subtle differences which need to be considered. As the information disclosed below will show, the general identification of academic ghostwriting and academic fraud hides an undifferentiated as well as simplistic view of the activity of ghostwriting.
Within the academic as well as non-academic context, an action is considered to be a fraud if it is done with a fraudulent intention. Thus, for instance, academic fraud occurs if a scientist willingly releases false (e.g., made-up or manipulated) research data, whether it be to thus obtain subsidies or to become famous. Another instance of academic fraud is plagiarism, i.e. the unquoted, planned use of another person’s thoughts and ideas with a view to presenting them as one’s own. A well-known example of plagiarism-related academic fraud is the case surrounding former German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Guttenberg’s doctorate thesis contained copyright infringements in more than 20 text passages. As a consequence, he was deprived of his doctoral degree and obligated to pay a fine amounting to 20,000 euros.
Many people put forward the view that submitting as well as releasing an academic (qualification) text written by a ghostwriter under one’s own name, too, clearly qualifies as a case of academic fraud. Caution is advised here, though: Ghostwriting in terms of writing commissioned texts, as such, is a service whereby an individual writes a text on behalf of and in the name of another person (e.g., a biography or a speech). Academic ghostwriting in particular is a service specialized in the field of academic writing. Academic ghostwriting, then, is a service whereby a ghostwriter writes an academic text on behalf of his/her client (e.g., a term/seminar paper, a Bachelor’s thesis, a Master’s thesis, a Diploma thesis, a Magister thesis, a doctorate thesis). In and of itself, this is not (yet) problematic. From a criminal law perspective, things get precarious once the client submits the text written by the ghostwriter under his/her own name while stating in an affidavit that the text was written by himself/herself. This would be an instance of academic fraud as the client is willingly making a false claim and suppressing true facts. The ghostwriter, on his/her part, can be equally guilty of academic fraud provided that he/she was demonstrably aware and supportive of the client’s undertaking. What is crucial to consider now, however, is that academic ghostwriting does not per se qualify as academic fraud.
There is a difference between academic ghostwriting based on integrity and conscientiousness and dubious, reckless academic ghostwriting. Academic ghostwriting is dubious and without integrity if the ghostwriting provider willingly accepts and supports the committment of academic fraud on the part of the client for profitability purposes and/or fails to make the necessary efforts to consult the client properly concerning this matter. Academic ghostwriting with integrity, on the other hand, involves making the client – personally, in the service contract or on the website – aware of the fact that the commissioned text products are merely templates or example texts which as such must not replace any examination performance but are to be considered orientation aids for writing an academic text on one’s own. Reputable ghostwriting providers point out to their clients that violations of examination regulations as laid down by the respective faculties may entail legal ramnificatons for making a false affidavit (e. g., de-registration, revocation of academic degree, payment of fine). To be sure, reputable academic consulting and mentoring does not necessarily ensure that the client will actually act according to the advice given, especially considering that this kind of academic fraud is hard to prove in practice. Yet in that case, it would be the client not the (reputable) ghostwriter that committed academic fraud. A similar stance is taken by the Cologne Higher Regional Court. In its judgment of February 23, 2011 (reference no: 6 U 178/10), the Court states that academic ghostwriting providers that make their clients aware of the sample character of their texts show an interest in highlighting the legal offer of academic counselling and support and thus setting it apart from any illegal offers.
Academic fraud and academic ghostwriting are not identical, interchangeable concepts. Two concepts are identical if they coincide completely in terms of its content and scope. This does not apply in the present case. Rather we are dealing with partial identity. It is correct that academic ghostwriting may be academic fraud, but it does not have to be. Whether or not academic ghostwriting can be accused of academic fraud, depends on the integrity of the respective ghostwriting provider as well as the client’s conduct. Academic ghostwriting can be subsumed under the concept of academic fraud only if the academic ghostwriter knowingly supports the client in committing an act of deception, or respectively, if the client acts contrary to the advice given by a ghostwriting provider with integrity.
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