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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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