Thesis Cheat: A University Ghostwriter's Crisis Of Conscience

"It was like being an actor"
"It was like being an actor"
Benedikt Laubert

MUNICH – When Johannes Langner (not his real name) heard about the grade, he wished he’d never written the paper. He found the outstanding mark, virtually the highest available in the German grading system, almost embarassing — after all, he’d never in his life set foot in a philosophy seminar. He’d been hoping for something average because Julia Greiss (not her real name) didn’t deserve anything better. That was the fellow student whose name was on the paper.

Today, Langner, 27, is a lecturer in the humanities department of a university somewhere in the Bavaria region of Germany. On the side, he helps others cheat.

As a student, he wrote papers for his peers. The one for Greiss was his ninth as a ghostwriter. Langner isn’t proud of what he does: “My work gives rich students — who don’t give a damn about learning and know very little — an advantage.”

The dark-haired man with glasses and a three-day beard earned 500 to 1,000 euros per paper. He wrote his first one for a girlfriend when it looked like she might be kicked out of college for poor grades. She was grateful, and paid him for it. The word quickly spread that Langner wrote papers for others, and foreign students in particular increasingly asked him if he could help them do their papers. For money. The requests came in handy because Langner had debts to pay back.

Many ghostwriters’ careers develop in a similar way. Some just let the word spread, others advertise by putting up little signs or their web address. Most ghostwriters work for agencies — in Germany, companies such as Dr. Franke-Consulting or GWriters that broker writers and earn a commission. Officially, agency writers just turn out papers. If a paying client then wants to claim that he wrote the paper, that’s his business.

The German Association of University Professors and Lecturers estimates that “up to 2% of all dissertations are written with active help from consultants.” Langner never worked with an agency, which he says made his occupation seem less evil. Also, he asked his clients for work they actually did write so he could study their writing style beforehand.

It was like being an actor, he says. One person has favorite words they use frequently, another has a penchant for complex sentences or makes a lot of spelling errors. He would frequently compare his own work with such original works to make sure he was staying in the same vein, and when in doubt went with a slightly better version of what he’d seen them produce themselves. “You’re playing a role. You have to be that other person when you’re writing,” he says.

Campus dregs

History, law, political science, educational science, sociology and philosophy are among the subjects in Langner’s repertoire. As impressive as that scope would seem, it is pretty standard for ghostwriters to write about subjects in many fields — often without having studied any of them. In an informal survey of clients, the highest rate of ghostwriting requests came from those studying economics or law.

While some ghostwriters get flat rates to produce something that will earn within a specified grade range, Langner only guarantees his clients that they won’t fail. All discussion leading up to a deal takes place personally — one of his conditions is that the work can never be mentioned in e-mails, texts or over the phone. When he finishes the assignment — usually after a week — he meets the customer and turns the work over on a USB memory stick.

When Langner graduated from university and started a doctoral thesis, then became a lecturer, he had a crisis of conscience about his moonlighting. Now he was the one with students who could potentially cheat on work they were doing for his courses. He says he has no fear of anybody finding out what he does as a sideline. But he has asked himself: “Can I continue to justify my work as a ghostwriter, or am I actually harming the pursuit of higher knowledge that I have committed myself to?”

But there is something else: Langner actually doesn’t wish his clients success. He characterizes them as the “dregs of academia” and holds them in utter contempt. His customers do nothing on their own, he says, have no respect for academic achievement and get their degrees despite lack of work and knowledge. They only get them, in fact, because they are in a position to buy them, usually with their parents’ money.

Amid a crisis of conscience, he says, he got the biggest assignment he’d ever had as a ghostwriter: An educational science major wanted him to write her entire thesis for her, some 100 pages. And the fee was in the high four figures.

Built-in errors

The stuff that he had written until that point had no value in an academic sense since it rehashed existing material, offering no new ideas. If the papers had no academic value, what harm was there in churning them out?

In the end, Langner decided the money for the original thesis was too good to turn down. There was never any trouble before, he figured, and anyway he made up his mind this would be the last project he accepted. He worked on it for two full months, and kept having to put the brakes on his own enthusiasm. After all, it was supposed to have been produced by a stressed-out student who was finding it difficult to cope, not by an ambitious university lecturer. So he made sure to build in a few mistakes, leave some of the arguments less than airtight, and use colloquial language.

While ghostwriter Langner was busy writing his assignment, lecturer Langner was teaching students — and penalizing them for breaking academic rules. Papers such as the ones he’d written so many of that he judged “academic garbage” got bad grades. He says he’s yet to see a ghostwritten paper, and were he to come across one he would have no compunction about failing the student and reporting the abuse to university authorities.

As he neared completion of the thesis, Langner says his doubts about the endeavor grew. As a student he used to slide into such work the way an actor slips into a role. He had the experience as he wrote of “being” somebody else, the experience took place in a kind of haze, and he earned a lot of money in a short period of time. Plus he enjoyed the admiration of his clients.

Now, as a lecturer, he found that he was afraid of getting derailed, afraid that continuing ghostwriting would ultimately betray not only his academic goals but himself — that he would become somebody else without wanting to. That was one year ago, and Langner hasn’t accepted any ghostwriting jobs since.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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