Friday, December 03, 2010

Great Peace

As many of my fellow bloggers know, we are constantly sent spam "comments" from people offering their services as dissertation writers, researchers, and editors. As my fellow bloggers also know, 99.9% of these enticing offers look something like this:

Great peace of fact about to done by one of my recent PhD search and explaining,information provided is also brilliant. [link to] Dissertation Introduction

or

well your Po$t is good and i really like it :). . .awesome WORK . . .KEEP SHARING. .;)[link to] Dissertation Editing Services

I can't say that I have never seen a thesis written like that (alas), but I can't decide if it makes me feel better or worse to think that someone might spend money for writing assistance that looks like that.

Maybe the guys who try to get their spam ads posted as blog comments aren't actually doing the dissertation writing or editing. Let's consider whether someone who writes well in the relevant language(s) could write/edit a scientific dissertation.

There was a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by someone who clearly writes well and has considerable skills as a researcher. Ethical issues aside, that person no doubt provides value for the money, although none of the examples listed in the article involved writing about the results of scientific research performed by the person hiring the ghost-writer. It mostly seemed like the 'research' involved interpreting the results of literature searches for undergraduate and MS students; i.e., the kind of thing you can write by reading Wikipedia and a few other sources and pulling it all together if you put some thought and time into it.

This requires skills (thinking and writing), but can someone with no significant background in the sciences write a convincing document (dissertation, manuscript, proposal) involving original scientific research?

Some of my students have sought writing help from various on-campus resources or friends who are not scientists. If given a document that already contains the data, equations, jargon, citations, and so on but that needs help with the technical aspects of writing, certainly a technical writing expert can help improve the document if they are generally aware of the conventions of science writing. And such writing support can help a lot with fixing basic problems encountered by those who don't have a lot of experience writing in a particular language. I am all for technical writing assistance where needed.

But can such a person write a good Science dissertation introduction for someone else? Or a discussion? What about the abstract? I am skeptical that a non-expert could write a convincing intro or discussion, but maybe they could write a good abstract.

Or am I delusional about this?

20 comments:

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

The "Shadow Scholar" reported that he did not do any writing that required math. I guess it is harder to bullshit your way through mathematics. He seemed to be doing mainly education and business papers, neither of which require much in the way of original research.

I blogged on his article at
http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2010/11/25/comments-on-the-shadow-scholar/

Edward said...

yes, there are tons of edition services provided by non-scientists and these editors claim they could boost your chances to get your paper accepted. These services are of course targeted to non-native english speakers and these editors make good money... some of them do not have a college degree, but they got some experience and plus... in a non-english speaking country any blonde guy is a Henry James to the locals .

Anonymous said...

There is more than one person in my field who splits the difference between a talented researcher and what you describe. That is, these people have spent years studying the field and attempting to do real research. However, they have not succeeded, but have mastered the art of writing abstracts and introductions to such a degree that they regularly get papers with incorrect results accepted. I do theoretical work so it usually amounts to having a theorem that is false, or whose proof is invalid even if the theorem is (accidentally) true, or so ill-defined and ambiguous that it is not even a theorem.

I am certain that every field of science and math has these people. (I am sure that it is rampant in humanities too although it is more offensive to me that it is possible to pull off even in a business as cut-and-dry as proving theorems.) The closest equivalent in experimental science is an unreproducible experiment. Just as with experimental science, it could be dishonesty (stating a theorem and a proof even though the author knows them to be invalid because it makes the paper look good, like falsifying data in an experiment), or it could be accidental (not seeing the multiple errors that plague the proof, like misinterpreting random data in an experiment by seeing a pattern that isn't there). In either case, it is someone replacing actual skill at science with rhetoric, and the skilled scientists tasked with reviewing the work failing to carry out their responsibility to read it carefully.

Anonymous said...

I think you're right. I've done freelance editing for years (mainly in the social sciences), but the only ghostwriting I've done involved lit reviews/persuasive arguments. I can't imagine ghostwriting for my clients in fields like biomedicine. While I can effectively edit their articles or grant proposals, there is no way I'd be able to present their data in a manner that sounds professional and up to the standards of their field.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I've ghost writed for someone, though only for business papers, I'm professionally a physical scientist, and it is actually pretty easy. However, I honestly don't think the other way round is possible. I've tried that approach during my troubled period but ended up having the re-write the whole thing afterwards. Don't recommend and never again!!

EliRabett said...

They can make a better living than your average post-doc

Anonymous said...

I have done a lot of (mostly voluntary and unpaid) editing of papers, dissertations, and grant proposals for other students and faculty in my department. I don't think I would have been able to do as effective a job if I did not have a scientific background. In some cases the editing required was very minor -- basically correcting some grammar and language usage problems for non-native English speakers. In those cases, the scientific content was already there, so I would have been able to do ok even without my scientific background. However, many times the science was very poorly presented or the rationale for the research was completely lost in the poorly written document. In those cases, my knowledge of the field was essential to the task of "fixing" the writing. In all cases, it helped to be able to work together with the author to put together the kind of document he/she wanted and to convey his/her message accurately. The goal in these cases was not to write the paper for the author -- rather, it was to improve their own writing skills for the future, especially in the cases of other students. Knowing the science behind what they were doing was key to those discussions as well.

Anonymous said...

I can take your last 3 or 4 papers, your new data set and 2 hours of your time and write a great paper that will be published. I see this in grad school all the time. A student can take their new data and just loosely copy their advisors old work. It is not that hard to do.

Ms.PhD said...

I have a friend who does this for a living. She is paid VERY well to write other people's articles for them. She has a PhD in a related field, though.

This is a very common practice and recently has gotten a lot of press thanks to allegations of misconduct/ethical violations. See for example:

/clinicaltrials.ploshubs.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000230

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18792536

Anonymous said...

Does anyone care if someone else does the dissertation writing, as long as the grad student does everything else (data, ideas, interpretation, whatever)?

Sunflower said...

Like most native English speakers in the sciences, I've done a fair amount of (unpaid) editing for colleagues. The basic stuff, like fixing wayward prepositions, doesn't require an expert. But it takes someone with a reasonable background to follow the logic (and therefore complain when the logic gets lost). And if you wanted to ghostwrite from scratch, you'd need to know your stuff almost as well as the person you're writing for does - it's not like you can mush together stuff from Wikipedia, it's supposed to be original research (with data!). The person would at least have to get the data and wrangle it into a semi-comprehensible format, which takes work, defeating the purpose of the rent-a-writer.

Anonymous said...

Not to derail from the main question, but I wanted to comment on why blog spam has bad spelling and grammar. There are two reasons: either the person posting the spam is some poor non-native English speaker who is being paid to post this; or, it is the result of a bot trying to bypass the spam filters. Ironically, spelling 'mistakes' actually make it easier to disguise a spam message.

Rosie Redfield said...

I think a god editor could greatly improve the clarity of a draft without knowing what all the big words meant. But the scientist/student would still need to go back through it to check that the science was OK.

Psycgirl said...

That article got me pondering the ethics of hiring a grant writer/editor. Am I cheating?

Isabel said...

"I've ghost writed for someone"

haha

Anonymous said...

I've got a Ph. D. and now I work professionally as a science editor and consultant. Based on most of the papers I work on, the scientific publishing universe would be a very different place without editors, volunteer or otherwise. I'm getting approached by more and more people to write their grants, but I always decline. I'm sure the money's good, but would I trust someone else to get my funding? No way! Plus, I didn't drop out of science to write other people's grants!

worldin1450 said...

Speaking from the point of view of a fresh grad student, even though I know writing articles/grants/dissertations is not a fun job, but why would you want to forgo the exercise? You don't honestly need to become a grad student to learn the techniques or even the critical thinking part of research (lab techs sometimes do just as well, and then they are unhappy with their lowly titles and go on to be a grad student), but it's from these writings that make you tie everything together and really appreciate what you are doing (spending 2 weeks optimizing your PCR can make you forget that you are ultimately making a difference in something important).

I've never had an experience of ghost writing someone's things, or having someone writing stuff for me (unless you count the dramatic re-write of my draft by my PI), but I once had an editor of our school report shortening an abstract I wrote for a summer research experience to be published on a newsletter, and she did some changes to fit the word limit. Even that totally butchered what I said in the first place, and I was unhappy about the outcome, but considered that ultimately it wouldn't matter. From that I would not trust anyone who's not directly involved in my research to write something for me.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine is a freelance writer, including writing for medical journals where she is given all the data and results, and writes the entire paper from that.

Anonymous said...

'gasstationwithoutpumps' as 12:28:00: I can report that in business disciplines shadow writing does not actually work well either - contrary to your apparent opinion we do actually do original research. Refer to journals such as Econometrica, Journal of Finance and you will see plenty of terminology. It would reflect better if you did not descend to slagging off other disciplines. And following from yesterdays blogs we would all love to have only 'weeks' to 'months' from submission to final publications, try rather years to get through the rigorous refereeing process.

John Cowan said...

I think that the determinative question for all these behaviors is "Does the substitution corrupt the process of evaluation?" On this view, ghostwriting for students is entirely wrong, ghostwriting for politicians and celebrities is fine (they aren't evaluated as authors), and ghostwriting, but not ghost research, is fine for scientific papers in most disciplines, because scholars are evaluated on the research, not the writing.

(See my comment to this Language Log posting for a bunch of worked-out examples.)