Edit Credit – Getting published without getting credit

Q. A magazine recently asked me to write an article on a freelance basis. When the issue came out, I was surprised to see that my name was not mentioned, and my article appeared as a “generic” one. What should I do? RM

A. Giving proper credit is an important ethical principal in Jewish tradition. When Mordechai told Esther to warn the King of an assassination plan, Esther was careful to transmit the information “in the name of Mordechai.” (Esther 2:22.) This was a major factor in the King’s decision to punish Haman for plotting against Mordechai (Esther 7:9) — a decision that enabled the Jew’s to reverse Haman’s wicked decree. Based on this, our Sages state, “Anyone who quotes a statement in the name of the one who said it brings salvation to the world.”

Of course due credit also has a commercial dimension. When an author’s name appears on an article, it provides important publicity and prestige that can be critical in obtaining future employment.

Sometimes authors are explicitly hired to “ghostwrite” pieces that will be published under someone else’s name. There is nothing inherently unethical about this practice. (In a slightly different arrangement, sections of a few well-known Torah works were written by advanced students of the author/editor.) However, there are two ethical pitfalls that need to be addressed.

First of all, in order to avoid taking advantage of the author, he or she needs to be informed in advance that the work will appear under someone else’s name.

Second, it is improper to hoodwink the reader by clearly implying that the work is original. Jewish law clearly forbids taking credit for something we didn’t do, even if it is not at someone else’s expense. For example, if we run into a friend by chance at the airport, we must be sure they know that the meeting was by chance and that we didn’t make the trip on their behalf. The best course, and the most common one, is to list the ghostwriter as an “editor” or “writing consultant.”

Chances are that in your case there was merely some kind of misunderstanding, and you should give the publishers the benefit of the doubt, as the Torah tells us “Judge your fellow man favorably.” At the same time, asking the publisher for a clarification will set your mind at ease and fulfill the commandment of giving non-threatening reproof. (Leviticus 19:15-17.) And in the future, make sure you have clear reassurances from this publisher on how you will be credited in articles you write!

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Megilla 15a; Chullin 94b.