If You Use a Ghostwriter, You Need to Check for Plagiarism

Earlier this month, I covered the story of Dr. David Agus, a celebrity physician whose latest book, The Book of Animal Secrets: Nature’s Lessons for a Long and Happy Life, was withdrawn from publication following the discovery of over 95 plagiarized passages in the book

However, the story didn’t end there. Corinne Purtill, reporter at the LA Times who wrote the original story, investigated further and found similar instances of plagiarism in Dr. Agus’ three previous books.

According to Purtill, those three books contain more than 120 passages between them that include virtually identical language to outside works, many of which are not cited at all and none are listed as quotes.

However, both Dr. Agus and his publishers, Simon & Schuster, have shifted the focus onto his long-time collaborator, Kristin Loberg. Loberg is a collaborator on all four of Dr. Agus’ books and is listed inside the book, though not on the cover, as a co-author of the three previous ones.

According to a statement from Loberg in the LA  Times, she accepts “complete responsibility for any errors my work may have contained,” and apologized to all involved, in particular those not credited.

However, this raises another problem. Loberg is credited as co-author or collaborator for at least 45 books, mostly related to health or wellness. This includes books published by all the major publishers and various authors, including Dr. Sanjay Gupta and David Perlmutter.

Gupta, for his part, said that he is investigating his books co-authored with Loberg and will print new versions if needed. Meanwhile, Loberg has removed all content from her website, leaving just a blank page. 

While it’s unclear what exact steps other publishers and collaborators are taking, one thing has become very clear, all the books that Loberg worked on are suspect and need to be checked. 

However, it never should have come to this. These issues could have and should have been quickly detected and resolved before any of these books were sent to print. All that it took would be the “authors” performing due diligence of the work being published under their name.

The Risk of Using a Ghostwriter

Ghostwriting in book publishing is something of an anomaly. In most fields, there are standards for how everyone who worked on a project should be attributed. Though people may use pen names or other methods to maintain anonymity, in general, the focus is on completely crediting all involved.

However, with certain books, there’s a general expectation that the person who actually wrote the book will receive little to no attribution and that the person on the cover either authorized or oversaw the project.

That, in turn, is the problem when using a ghostwriter. The person who wrote the book isn’t on the cover, they aren’t marketed as the author and, even if they are credited on the inside, it’s possible for readers to never know that they exist.

The only name connected to that book is, at the end of the day, the credited author.

This was something that both myself and Dr. Debora Weber-Wulff said in the most recent LA Times article. Basically, that the person who gets the credit for the book also has to take blame when the book commits fabrication, plagiarism or other ethical missteps. 

Dr. Agus is not the first named author to have been confronted with this issue. As I discussed 2020, At that time, Father Thomas Rosica was facing allegations of plagiarism in much of his work. This was complicated by the fact that he had ghostwritten for other authors, introducing plagiarism into their work as well.

Cases like this are far more common than they should be, and the nature of ghostwriting is partly to blame. Most ghostwriters work on multiple projects at once and often face significant time crunches. Just like how journalists are struggling to do more with less time, ghostwriters are facing similar challenges and similar temptations.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to mitigate that risk, but it does require authors and editors to be proactive about the problem.

Mitigating The Risk

The best solution to the problem is also the simplest: Check ghostwritten works for plagiarism before preparing them for publication.

To that end, there are two approaches that one can take to address this issue:

  1. Run the Check Yourself: Using a reputable plagiarism detection service, check the work yourself. Such checks take only minutes to perform and usually cost between $25 and $100 depending on the specific service and length of the book. If the book is clean, it should be easy to determine that quickly and move on. However, the time needed to interpret the results can grow quickly if issues are found or more complex investigation is necessary. 
  2. Hire a Professional: There are many people, including myself at CopyByte, will run a plagiarism check for you. This is much more expensive but is usually more comprehensive and can be useful if there are questions about the work. Furthermore, it provides independent verification of the content in the book.

All that said, any good plagiarism detection should check for three things:

  1. Comparison Against the Internet: First, and most obvious, is that it has to check against the public internet. This should include all information that is accessible via search engine on public-facing pages. 
  2. Comparison Against Private Sources Used: If any documents were heavily used/cited in the work, it is important that they be checked separately. This is true even if those documents are available on the public web, as offline comparisons can be much more precise.
  3. Checked for AI Writing: Finally, it’s important to check the work for signs it was written using a large-language model AI, such as Chat-GPT. Though such tools are not perfect, they can at least provide a warning if such text is likely contained within the book. 

To be clear, these are all things that can be done by the named author or the editor. No outside service is needed and the time to run the checks is fairly low. Interpreting the results can be much more time-consuming, especially if issues are found, but finding issues should be enough to pump the brakes anyway.

That is what makes it so frustrating that authors and publishers clearly do not do this. The costs of such checks, even if one uses an outside source, are fairly insignificant when compared to the costs of marketing and publishing a book.

Yet, as we see, it’s rarely done and, because of that, 45 books across 5 publishers are now under scrutiny for plagiarism issues.

Bottom Line

Dr. Agus and his publisher passing blame onto Loberg is an unusual move. Even when ghostwriters mess up, it’s rare for authors and publishers to call attention to them like this.

However, Loberg isn’t listed as the author on the book’s cover. She’s not listed as an author on the books’ Amazon pages. She’s not even mentioned on Dr. Agus’ page promoting the book nor is she included in the ISBN information on the book

In all the above cases, Dr. Agus is listed as the lone author. Loberg only gets her mention on the inside cover, where she is named in smaller front below Dr. Agus’ name with the line, “with Kristin Loberg.”

Simply put, Dr. Agus took credit for these books. He received fame and notoriety from them, he almost certainly profited from them greatly and was the only person to receive benefit from their publication.

To be clear, Loberg’s career as a ghostwriter is likely over. While accepting responsibility was the correct thing to do, there’s simply too many questions about her writing, and there are plenty of other prospective ghostwriters that don’t have such a cloud over them.

However, Dr. Agus has taken a huge hit here as well. This cloud of plagiarism will hang over his work, even if he does publish other books that don’t have an issue. While that might seem unfair, by taking credit for the book, he also has to accept blame.

This is especially true since, with just a small measure of due diligence, this all could have been avoided. 

In short, there’s enough blame to go around. Even if both Dr. Agus and his publisher are trying to place it all on one person, they share in the blame both directly and indirectly.