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10/15/2019

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Nicolas

I agree it's terrible, but I'd like to push back. The evidential value of a ghostwritten letter need not be zero if it's been authorized, approved or vetted by someone whose testimony is to be trusted (typically, the person in whose name the latter is written). As long as that's the case, it's not obvious that a ghostwritten letter has significantly less evidential value than if it'd actually been written by the reference. After all, the reference could be equally insincere, over the top, or unreliable in their testimony as the candidate is about their own merits. What seems to matter is whether we should trust the reference's testimony, not how the letter was produced. Still, I agree it's terrible for so many other reasons.

Anon European PhD Student

I can confirm that a professor (in Europe) asked me to do this when I applied for PhD positions, now several years ago. I thought it sounded so weird/bad that I refused to do it. Luckily, I was able to find other letter writers and got a decent amount of offers anyway. But still.

Marcus Arvan

"it's not obvious that a ghostwritten letter has significantly less evidential value than if it'd actually been written by the reference. After all, the reference could be equally insincere, over the top, or unreliable in their testimony as the candidate is about their own merits."

Sure, but one of Helen's points is that letters in general lack evidential value for the reasons you give to begin with. So saying "ghostwritten letters aren't worse" isn't saying much! Anyway, my objection to ghostwritten letters isn't evidential, but moral.

Michel

I have two close friends who were asked by one of their references to ghostwrite a letter. I ghostwrote those letters for them, because it's something that's *a lot* easier to do as an outsider, and because I had more time for the task than they did. And I think I did a *fantastic* job, almost certainly better than the lazy chumps who offloaded the task onto my friends.

But man, it seems *so* shitty to do that to someone. For one thing, it's an act of plagiarism. But more importantly, it's displacing a professional obligation from someone in a position of power and security onto someone with neither of those things. And if you're on the market, you have *a lot* less time to put into writing your own letter of recommendation than your reference does, especially since it's a lot harder and more time-consuming for you than for them.

It's not the applicant who has experience writing letters of recommendation: it's the reference. They're written them before, and they can easily template them. The applicant, on the other hand, is starting from scratch, *and doesn't even have the benefit of having read other peoples' letters before.*

It's totally irresponsible, and it makes me pretty angry. Thankfully, I don't think it's very widespread in philosophy (in a lot of other fields, however, it is).

Andy

Don't have much to say on ghost writing (beyond that it sounds terrible), but I think it's noteworthy that I know of at least one job search I have been involved in (as a candidate in the UK) where academic staff (including the search committee) were at no point permitted to see my letters of reference. The letters were only used by HR to verify the various things I said about myself. I'm not sure how common this is in the UK, but I think it's a good practice, and I hope more universities adopt it.

The Ghost of Christmas past

Michel
I hardly think it is ethically less problematic that you write these ghost letters for your friends.
I knew someone at the place I did my grad work who had students write their own letters. The students tended to do okay on the market. This person had a strong reputation in their research area - but I thought he was very questionable ethically.

elisa freschi

Small explanation from this side of the Atlantic:
I take time to write each single recommendation letter I am asked to write, but recommendation letters are generally less important in Europe than they are in North America. Moreover, they tend to be less of a literary genre and more a historical resumé of what one did. This is the reason why many professors ask people to draft their own recommendation letter (possibly, one will know better when one started one's PhD or one's position at University X, than one's supervisor or principal investigator, etc.). Then, the official author of the letter will probably add a few nice words on top of what was prepared for them.

anonprof

Many professors in Europe don't know how to write a letter of recommendation for the Anglo-American job market. This is one of the reasons why many of them allow their students to do it (even when they also think that letters of recommendation should be abolished). Yes, it is bad, but many of us just want to help our students cross the Atlantic or the Channel.

Michel

Ghost of Christmas Past: To my mind, the ethical transgression is the putative reference's, not the writer's. They, after all, are the ones with cushy jobs offloading their professional responsibilities onto new scholars in precarious positions.

Postdoc

Helen's proposal is great.

The profession couldn't put a stop to these letters fast enough.

I do wonder, though, about the ethics of applicants writing their own approved letters. It doesn't strike me nearly as unethical as others make it out to be. Is it unethical for the President to read a speech as his own, though it's composed by others? Cases like this lead me to think that, if there's anything wrong here, it likely lies, not in the final letter itself, but in (as Michel puts it) the referer's failure to act a certain way.

Amanda

I was asked to write a letter for my Phd admissions, as an undergraduate! Not only was this incredibly uncomfortable, but I knew nothing about how the PhD market worked. I was an undergrad! When I think back to what I wrote all I can recall is that it was much shorter than I now realize a letter ought to be.

I think the biggest ethical issue (at least, in the US)is putting this on the candidate You are (1) asking them to do your job, (2) they probably lack the qualifications that you have in this matter, i.e. skills in writing these letters, (3) you are asking them to do something that is just a very unpleasant and uncomfortable thing to do, (4) you are putting them in the awful position of having to basically plagiarize and lie on all their job applications. Even if it shouldn't be seen this way, it is easy to imagine some grad students would feel like this, and that is an awful position to put someone in.

Also, if a letter is just supposed to be a list of accomplishments, then that can be on the CV. Letters are very commonly used to hire people from top universities, into other top universities, when they person hired has very little on their CV. And I hear from a lot of R1 professors these letters are taken very seriously.

I think letters should only be requested at the latter stages, and actually they should be phone conversations and not letters. I think that information would be more accurate. People have a much harder time talking in hyperbole when the conversation is actual and they didn't plan it out, which most won't'.

Another issue with letters is applying to awards and fellowships. I skipped over applying to a number of fellowships and awards I really wanted, and was well-qualified for, because I didn't have it in me to ask for a *specific* letter of reference from my letter writers. So those with push personalities seem much more likely to get these awards.

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