Ask TON: When Is Outsourcing Unethical?


Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

“I took on too many assignments recently and to get myself out of a bind without having to tell my editor I was so far behind, I hired another writer who I trusted to help me with my reporting and drafting. It all worked out, but after the story appeared, people were congratulating me on Twitter and I felt kind of gross. Was it unethical for me to hire a subcontractor?”

Tim DeChant, editor, NOVA Next:

It wasn’t unethical for you to hire a subcontractor, but I don’t think you made the right decision by taking full credit for the story. It’s not unusual for people to hire researchers for books and other projects (though those people are often acknowledged at some point). But using their writing as your own, well, that’s a bit more concerning. In journalism, bylines are everything. It’s only fair to give the other writer credit for their hard work.

The other issue is that editors commission under the assumption that they’ll be working with a particular person who has a known set of skills and experience. It’s good that everything worked out, but ultimately, it’s your name on the line. I can’t imagine the editor being happy if they found out.

If you’re ever in a similar situation, I’d recommend sending the editor a note. They might be flexible with the deadline or maybe won’t mind if two people collaborate on the article. Either way, by being up front you will eliminate the potential for an even stickier situation down the road.

Kendall Powell, freelance writer and editor; contributor to The Science Writers Handbook:

The fact that you felt gross is telling. When it comes to ethics, listen when your gut is trying to tell you something!

I’ve never actually outsourced my science-writing work to another person (toilet-cleaning, dog-grooming, and child-sitting duties, yes). Outsourcing is becoming more and more common though among writers, it seems. A recent discussion revealed that many of my colleagues have outsourced transcribing, research and fact-checking, administrative tasks, multimedia chores, and even background work on pitches. All of that seems aboveboard to me. But where things get sticky is the idea of paying someone to actually come up with pitch ideas and even write pitches. At this point, you’ve muddied the intellectual-property waters. And while technically you might still be within the bounds of your contract, in a business where your ideas and your reputation are your only capital, it seems, well, pretty ick.

Taking it even further and subcontracting drafting of an article out to another writer crosses a line in my mind. Most contract warranty clauses have that “work is my own” bit in there. And even if it doesn’t violate the letter of your contract, it certainly violates the spirit of your agreement. Your client believes they are hiring you to do the work and that the ideas and words are yours. And even if you paid the other writer the full fee, taking credit for another’s words feels analogous to cheating or plagiarism.

Finally, on a practical note, subcontracting out writing seems like a risky proposition that could come back to haunt you. If there had been a problem with the story’s accuracy or tone, or a source had a complaint, it might have made for a very awkward conversation with your editor. And if your editor had somehow gotten wind of what happened, your reputation would be toast at that publication and beyond. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take.

Instead, I’d take my chances with asking for an extension or handing some work back. If done properly and with as much notice as possible, most editors would be understanding. What editors really don’t like are unexpected surprises—such as getting copy from one writer when they hired another.

Nancy Shute, co-host, NPR Shots blog:

If outsourcing were outlawed, the global economy would never be able to produce another iPad. So it totally makes sense to think of calling in a subcontractor to manage the demand spikes that plague small businesses like ours.

But there’s a reason why this common business strategy left you feeling gross. All industries have their own standards, and the standards differ for different types of professional writing. I’m guessing you wouldn’t be shocked to hear that congressmen don’t write their own speeches and celebrities don’t pen their own bios. Or that authors of nonfiction books commonly hire researchers and fact-checkers.

But with magazine articles, the industry standard is for each piece to be an original piece of work created by the author for that publication. Check the contract, and you’ll see language to that effect. It’s not the most lucrative business model, but it’s the one we’ve got. Your editors presume you’re the sole creator of the piece unless told otherwise, and your readers do, too.

But there are ways to subcontract with integrity. They all involve recognizing the contribution of your rescuer. A double byline is one obvious option; a “so-and-so contributed to this report” acknowledgement at the end of the article is another. This of course means coming clean with your editor, but I’m guessing that if it’s presented as a collaboration (which it was), it’s going to sound like a reasonable response to a time crunch. And maybe the source of future work for you both.