Ghost writing a complex topic

Career, grade pressure may give students incentive to hire ghost writers, cheat on tests

· December 1, 2010, 5:32 am   ·  Updated December 1, 2010, 12:00 am

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Two doctors were recently discovered to have used a writing company to produce the text of their 1999 book on psychiatric disorders, according to a story in Tuesday’s New York Times.

Though the practice, known as ghost writing, is common among professional and celebrity works, ghost writing companies are increasingly catering to students across the country.

In November, a writer for a “custom-essay company” published an anonymous article in The Chronicle of Higher Education detailing the practice of academic ghost writing.

“I have become a master of the admissions essay,” he wrote. “I have written these for undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs, some at elite universities. I can explain exactly why you’re Brown material, why the Wharton MBA program would benefit from your presence, how certain life experiences have prepared you for the rigors of chosen course of study.”

Using the pseudonym “Ed Dante,” the ghost writer attracted the attention of students and faculty to a problem that may not be easy to address.

“The response to this issue can’t be, ‘Let’s crack down on ghost writers,’” College senior and Undergraduate Assembly President Matt Amalfitano said. “We need to take a holistic look at student life in general — the stresses of student life. It’s not about keeping them from getting ghost-written papers but helping them get support overall.”

“The savvy cheater on Penn’s campus is going to be able to get away with hiring more than a ghost writer,” Amalfitano said. “They might get away with cheating on an exam.”

An Engineering sophomore who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the issue said she would consider asking a fellow student to take an exam for her.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure here because the classes are hard and people here are so smart,” she said. “In high school I never asked anyone because it was easy. I didn’t need anyone’s help.”

She noted that students are often driven by their final grade.

“There are so many smart people that just know [the materials] so much better than I would even if I tried studying,” she said. “Everyone wants an A.”

At Penn, the University Honor Council works closely with the Office of Student Conduct to address issues of academic integrity.

“We don’t have any policies that are specific to ghost writing,” Engineering junior and Honor Council member Aaron Roth said. However, he noted that the Honor Council works to raise awareness about the consequences of these actions.

“Ghost writing is definitely a form of cheating. It’s definitely punishable,” he added.

Cheating, plagiarism and fabrication are violations of the University’s Code of Academic Integrity. When students commit a violation of integrity, the OSC conducts an investigation. If there is evidence that a student cheated, the office will recommend some sort of punishment. The student can choose to accept or reject the punishment. If the student disputes it, the case is brought to a hearing with three faculty members and two members of the honor council, who decide on an ultimate outcome.

The University Honor Council serves as the judicial board for undergraduate academic integrity. It serves to educate the student body about academic integrity and “bring a student perspective” to hearing panels that assess individual cases of honor code violations, Roth said.

According to Roth, the punishments for academic violations range from a semester-long suspension to expulsion from the University. Severe punishments appear on a student’s transcript.

Amalfitano believes ghost writing and similar forms of plagiarism speak “to a generational issue” regarding “a pressure to be involved and do well in courses” and “the pressure of finding jobs right after school.”

He added that although everyone should be motivated to uphold academic integrity, it is ultimately a decision based on individuals’ values.

“It comes down to what a grade and what a degree mean to you,” Amalfitano said.

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