The ‘Ghost Writer’ Mystery: New Developments in the Zak Bagans Scandal

Kenneth Biddle

On January 29, 2020, my review of the book Ghost Hunting for Dummies by Zak Bagans was published. Much of the article covered extensive suspected plagiarism from various uncredited sources, including almost an entire chapter taken from Joe Nickell’s book Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation. Among other examples I provided, there was one from Troy Taylor, an author of various paranormal books. I also mentioned that according to my own findings, Taylor’s work appeared to have been copied the most—over twenty pages worth (Biddle 2020). If you haven’t read the review, I suggest you head over to Ghost Hunting For Dummies By Zak Bagans—And Many Others before proceeding.

An interesting twist developed on January 31, 2020, when Zak Bagans posted on his Twitter feed, “Was great working with you @troytaylor13 on ‘Ghost-Hunting for Dummies’ reference guide and thanks for clarifying all this!” along with an image of a typed page from Taylor himself. I’ve included the transcript below—with proper attribution:

My name is Troy Taylor; I have authored more than 130 books on the paranormal over the course of the past 30 years. I would like to thank Zak Bagans for allowing me the opportunity to assist him in conducting research for his book, “Ghost-Hunting for Dummies.”

A blogger recently claimed that Zak’s book contains certain material of mine that he did not have permission to use. This is not true. I worked WITH Zak to publish this material and, as with countless other celebrity reference books, I agreed to serve as an uncredited researcher. This is a very common practice that, in this case, involved assisting Zak in the time-consuming process of gathering, compiling and assimilating prior published research materials (including some of my own research and writings) and helping Zak incorporate them into his book. I take full blame for neglecting to appropriately attribute references to some of there [sic] sources, owing to the extremely tight deadline given to Zak to finish this book. I must emphasize that this was NOT in any way Zak’s fault; it was completely mine.

The publisher is already printing new copies of “Ghost-Hunting for Dummies” to ensure that appropriate credit is given. This is an amazing book. I highly recommend that everyone buy a copy and keep it handy as their go-to resource for all things paranormal. (Taylor 2020)

I’m going to assume that the “blogger” mentioned in the post is me. To verify my assumption as best I could, I did a quick Google search. Not surprisingly, I was unable to locate any other bloggers who made the specific claim mentioned in Taylor’s post. Although both Bagans and Taylor avoided directly naming me, the evidence strongly suggests I’m the guy they’re talking about. (I can’t help but feel the “blogger” remark may have also been a little dig at me, attempting to make my work seem somehow inferior compared to Taylor’s list of publications—despite my investigation workshops, columns for the Skeptical Inquirer website, podcasts, etc.)

I’d like to address Taylor’s statement point-by-point. First, Taylor states that this blogger (me) claimed that “Zak’s book contains certain material of mine that he did not have permission to use. This is not true. I worked WITH Zak to publish this material and, as with countless other celebrity reference books, I agreed to serve as an uncredited researcher” (Taylor 2020). Obviously, he’s saying that I had incorrect information, that I was wrong about Bagans not having permission to use his work. In fact, the word permission doesn’t appear at all in my original review, and Bagans did not need Taylor’s “permission” to use his work. Anyone can quote anything that anyone has written without needing permission—as long as it’s properly attributed and covered under Fair Use doctrine (such as parody, commentary, or criticism). So Taylor’s statement is meaningless, and in any event that’s not what I wrote. I’ll return to the issue of permission shortly.

Taylor is implying that I was wrong, and, like most of us, I hate being wrong. More specifically, it’s embarrassing to put out inaccurate information that wrongfully puts someone in a bad light. That’s something a poor investigator does. Lucky for me, I’m a pretty good investigator. Pay attention, Bagans, you might learn something.

Three weeks prior to publishing my review, I contacted Troy Taylor via Facebook Messenger on January 11. The next day, on January 12, Taylor and I had a very informative conversation that contradicts his recent public statement. While informing him of the suspected plagiarism, I wrote, “There’s a substantial amount, and I wanted to check with you to see if you may have gave/sold Bagans the rights to use. You are not credited for any of your work.”

Taylor informed me that he was already aware of the plagiarism—notably not because Taylor and Bagans had worked together on the book but rather because Taylor had taken some form of action against Bagans. Taylor stated, “I already knew about it and this was a battle I actually won. I received a substantial payment for this. Whoever the ghost writer was (and you KNOW it wasn’t him) used a ton of material but I got a settlement from it and let it stand since the old Guidebook is out of print. I don’t do the investigation stuff anymore—too silly. I just write the legends, lore, and mostly history and crime now. I think that’s why I love you [sic] articles so much” (Taylor 2020).

After reading that, one has to ask: Why would Taylor have to “battle” anyone (and receive a settlement) if he was already working with Bagans from the start as a ghostwriter? Taylor’s conversation with me makes it clear he did not know who wrote the Bagans book. The emphasis Taylor used in the line, “and you KNOW it wasn’t him,” reflects the lack of confidence many of us share that Bagans could have written such a book himself. Additionally, if Taylor was in fact an “uncredited researcher,” as he claims in the public statement circulated by Bagans, he would have been paid a fee for his work, rather than receiving a “settlement,” which results from a “dispute.” According to Cornell Law School, a settlement means “an agreement that ends a dispute and results in the voluntary dismissal of any related litigation. Regardless of the exact terms, parties often choose to keep their settlement agreements private” (Cornell University 2020). On a positive note, it’s nice to know that Taylor has loved my articles (at least up until now).

To clarify that Taylor’s work was indeed plagiarized, I specifically asked Taylor the following question: “…so he (or the ghost writer) took your stuff prior to obtaining permission?” Taylor replied, quote, “Yeah but it got sorted out.” By sorted out, I’m assuming he meant the settlement he received. You probably recognized that Taylor admitted to me that his work had been plagiarized—taken without credit, prior to permission being obtained—and he had to battle to get a settlement.

Taylor then asked that I “keep the settlement between us” because he had signed some (unidentified) papers. I agreed to not include this information in my review, and I would go with what I already had prior to our conversation. This is exactly what I did, refraining from adding this information to my review, which already had more than enough information to get the point across: that Bagans didn’t write the book himself and used the work of others without permission. However, because Taylor decided to declare that my claim (concerning his work) was not true, it became necessary to disclose the additional information Taylor sent me. If Taylor was working with Bagans from the start, then my claim was wrong only because Taylor himself provided misleading information, and of course Taylor’s name does not appear credited in the book. It was a perfectly reasonable and defensible conclusion based on all the evidence available at the time. If Taylor wasn’t working with Bagans as an uncredited ghost writer and had taken legal action against him to resolve a dispute (as Taylor related to me), then both Taylor and Bagans are deceiving the public.

Next Taylor states, “This is a very common practice that, in this case, involved assisting Zak in the time-consuming process of gathering, compiling and assimilating prior published research materials (including some of my own research and writings) and helping Zak incorporate them into his book.” I’m no lawyer, but that sounds to me like Taylor is openly admitting to plagiarizing, taking the fall for the guy pretending to be the sole author. This wasn’t a smart move, because there wasn’t any reason for Taylor to speak up at all. After all, large amounts of material in Ghost Hunting for Dummies were clearly plagiarized from other sources—regardless of who wrote the book.

Taylor goes on to state, “I take full blame for neglecting to appropriately attribute references to some of there [sic] sources, owing to the extremely tight deadline given to Zak to finish this book. I must emphasize that this was NOT in any way Zak’s fault; it was completely mine.” This is, well, bullshit. First, considering that the Dummies brand of books do not make it a practice to include formal references in their books, as I mentioned in my original review (Biddle 2020), I doubt the appropriate references would have shown up no matter what Taylor did.

Second, references and attributions are for quotes or small sections of another’s work that you’re building upon or critiquing—not when you outright copy pages worth of material you don’t credit. Adding references after the fact does not fix the issue. It’s something taught in high school: Anytime you take someone else’s words and use them in your own writing, they should be in quotation marks or block quotes, and correctly attributed. It’s not complicated, and frankly it’s alarming that an author of over 130 books was unaware of this.

Third, it most certainly is Zak Bagans’s fault—because he put his name on the book as the sole author and copyright holder—no matter how much Taylor wants to emphasize it. Finally, an “extremely tight deadline” is no excuse for engaging in plagiarism (whether by Bagans, Taylor, or anyone else).

Remember, we’re not only talking about Taylor’s own work; published material from at least twenty other authors, including George Noory and Rosemary Ellen Guiley (Noory and Guiley 2011) and Joe Nickell (Nickell 1994) were taken without attribution. I spoke to Nickell on the phone prior to publishing my review, and that was the first Nickell had heard of it. And no, Nickell had not given Bagans or Taylor permission to use his work, credited or otherwise. I’ve also been in contact with several other authors who were also not aware their work had been taken and certainly never gave either Bagans or Taylor permission to use it. If Troy Taylor wishes to allow Zak Bagans to use his own work, uncredited, in Bagans’s book, that’s his choice. However, Taylor does not have the moral or legal authority to allow other authors’ copyrighted material in any book, regardless of whose name is on the cover.

Taylor wraps up his public statement with, “The publisher is already printing new copies of ‘Ghost-Hunting for Dummies’ to ensure that appropriate credit is given” (Taylor 2020). This is the same Band-Aid type of response that I received from Tracy Boggier, senior acquisitions editor at John Wiley & Sons. Simply adding references after the fact does not allow anyone, even a ghost writer, to freely copy entire pages of other people’s work unattributed and sell it as their own.

Taylor ends with, “This is an amazing book. I highly recommend that everyone buy a copy and keep it handy as their go-to resource for all things paranormal.” Why would anyone encourage buying a copy of the book when it was created through dishonest and deceptive means? Bagans and Taylor should be thanking the anonymous “blogger” (whoever he is) for finding their “mistakes” and giving credit to the many writers and researchers who actually wrote much of the “amazing book.”

I reached out to Taylor once again on January 31, just hours after he made his public statement, with the following: “I’m a bit confused. You told me above that Zak (or ghost writer) used your material and had to battle for a settlement, which I didn’t mention (as I agreed). Now you’re stating publicly that you were working with him from the start? So, did you lie to me?” I followed up a few hours later asking, “And just to clarify, are you acknowledging now that you plagiarized the work of others? I don’t want to misrepresent you.” As of February 5, I have not received any response from Taylor.

 


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