Fraud Factory: Helping Careerists Get Ahead as a Ghostwriter

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In Germany, higher education titles help people in business circles burnish their credentials and get ahead. But instead of doing the work themselves, many busy careerists are employing ghostwriters to write their doctorates for them instead. One ghostwriter reveals the flaws of the educational system.

The anonymous ghostwriter hard at work. Zoom
Fabienne Hurst

The anonymous ghostwriter hard at work.

Another assignment has just come in: 200 pages to be written in four weeks on the topic of business administration, in English. Christian Arnig* sits in his room in a Frankfurt apartment he shares with roommates, wearing a wool sweater, scarf, glasses and comfortable house slippers. His apartment is sparsely decorated with just a bed, writing desk and glass wall cabinet, where binders and legal texts stand next to a row of classic literature. He enjoys fiction and plays, though he used to only read non-fiction. "When I was 13 years old I wanted Nietzsche for Christmas," says the 33-year-old with a grin.

Arnig is clever, maybe too clever, if he is to be believed. There is hardly any profession left for him other than writing bachelors, masters and doctoral theses for other people. Four years ago, after finishing up a doctorate in philosophy, he applied to work at a book publisher, but was rejected. "I was too qualified for the position," he said. Too expensive and too ambitious, he reckoned.

In a humanities trade journal, he read about ghostwriting agencies, of which there are roughly a handful in Germany, and Arnig soon began working for one. He started with an essay, which was followed by bigger contracts writing doctorate theses in subjects like law, political science, business administration, art history and sociology. "I find it great to discover things," he says. "In no other profession would I gain such a wide range of knowledge."

Often he's only given a general subject, and must determine the topic and question to be posed in the thesis on his own. Sometimes he doesn't even know the name of the university, doctoral advisor or client. He'll exchange only as many anonymous emails as absolutely necessary with his clients, but he can read between the lines. "These are people who have absolutely no intellectual ambitions," he says. "One can tell from their spelling errors that they would never be able to get a Ph.D. the normal way." But Arnig makes sure that they get one anyway.

The slim young man comes across as mellow. His method consists of breaking a topic down to its essentials. How does he familiarize himself with a new topic so quickly? "Naturally, one needs a high level of general knowledge to able to appraise a topic," he says. "When something interests me, I grab an encyclopedia, learn the specialized terms and create a structural plan and fill more and more pages." His own doctorate took five years and a great deal of sweat, passion and scholarship funds. In his current job, he has only needed about three months for every assignment, and so far all of them have been accepted by the universities.

Doctoral Dysfunction

Arnig is not surprised. "The relationship between professors and their doctoral candidates has often been minimized down to a lazy wave-through," says Arnig. He guesses that it is often the same people who permit the deception. "A proper doctoral supervisor would be able to tell that the style and intellectual level of the text could never have come from the person sitting across from him during consultation meetings," he says. That is why he doesn't feel bad about what he does. "If the universities functioned properly, my job wouldn't exist," he says.

Arnig doesn't need any outside recognition, which he got when he finished his own Ph.D. Plus, he gets paid for his work. One page costs between €60 ($80) and €100, about half of which goes to the agency. In particularly difficult topics the fee is negotiated. The lust for advanced degree titles is growing in Germany. Here the doctorates usually take less time than a Ph.D. from the United States and are pursued by those who have no interest in academic careers, but better credentials to help them advance in business.

The drive for academic titles has also revealed the dark underbelly of rampant doctoral fraud, even in the government's highest circles. Just last week German Education Minister Annette Schavan had her doctoral title stripped and was forced to step down when her university ruled that parts of her doctoral dissertation had been plagiarized. Two years ago the same things happened to then German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who was rumored to have used a ghostwriter himself.

Instead of creating a backlash against ghostwriters, however, cases like Guttenberg's have actually had the opposite effect. His case was actually how many people first learned about the existence of doctoral ghostwriters at all. Since the beginning of the 2000's, the number of ghostwriters like Arnig has risen and prices have fallen for the service.

Murky Legal Ground

What is probably Germany's oldest and biggest ghostwriting agency has existed for more than 20 years. Because a competitor could use the information against them in court, the agency is no longer allowed to say the number of people it employs. "I can't give the exact count," says the company founder. "But it is completely possible that the number of ghostwriters employed is in the five-digit range."

The agency calls itself an academic text and writing agency on its website. According to the agency head, it doesn't write dissertations for lazy careerists, but rather researches texts for companies and universities. For example, medical studies for the pharmaceutical industry, where the author doesn't matter at all, he says. University working groups with a dearth of capacity order up texts in the field of linguistics, literature, music and art, he says.

Other agencies openly advertize that they take over the work of overwhelmed academics. They remain within the law in that they require their clients to sign a statement that the created text will only be used for training purposes. Düsseldorf's higher regional court doubts that, however. In a ruling last year, it said that those who take part in the business, ghostwriters included, clearly know that the work is also submitted to universities. Ghostwriting, the court said, is a "forbidden service" and immoral.

According academic regulations, ghostwriting clients risk, at minimum, losing their degree and in some cases must even pay high fines. Most universities require a statement saying that the student created the work on their own, which gets dicey in court. "I that's good because academic fraud is not a petty matter," says Arnig. He's serious. The ghostwriter despises the system that he himself profits from.

A Free Pass

The one aspect of Arnig's work that he feels ashamed of is that he doesn't create relevant academic texts, and instead merely provides a free pass to careerists. "I find it unappetizing that I help intellectual flakes get a career boost," he says. Many people earn a lot of money, but are stuck in their careers and need a title to get further. The €20,000 they pay for the work barely makes a dent in their wallet. Thanks to people like Arnig, the rich get even richer. "It's a structural problem," says Arnig. "Everything is for sale: sex, people, doctorates. I am only a cog in the wheels of capitalism."

It's also a job without co-workers, a boss or personal contact. Arnig actually never has to take off his house slippers. But for balance he is an amateur theater director, with rehearsals two evenings a week. A career in the theater is out of the question, like all other jobs, though. He says he is too unknown to become an essayist, too qualified to become a publishing editor, and too scholarly for journalism.

Arnig doesn't want to get an even higher degree that would allow him to become a professor, because he would eventually have to give up other subjects. In his field precarious living conditions are the rule, and besides, elsewhere only specialists are wanted, he says. In higher education, it seems, generalists like him aren't in demand. In the market of vanity titles that's even more true.

*Name changed by SPIEGEL editors

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