Why Are You Anonymous?

[Annotation in BOLD were made following comments on twitter, and below]

Many tweeters and bloggers are anonymous. [Several people have pointed out that what I really mean is pseudonymous, e.g., Acclimatrix below. This is correct! And I am not talking about, e.g., anonymous manuscript review.] An exchange today (18 November 2013) on twitter between @vinwalsh (who is Professor Vincent Walsh, UCL), and @neurobollocks (who is, erm, neurobollocks), regarding the appropriateness (or not) of anonymity, prompted me to write my 2 pence about the subject.

This is because I started thinking about this issue when one anonymous tweeter – whose tweets I admire – let out enough information for me to know that they were in my circle of friends – so they know me, and who I am on internet and in real life. But I cannot know who they are. Furthermore, they were planning to be at (at least) two parties/socials at the Society for Neuroscience conference, where I was planning to be — yet I didn’t know who they were! I guess felt a bit frustrated, or at the very least, that it was a lost opportunity.

The feeling was compounded when I went to the #SFNbanter party, and the first thing that happened was someone told me to take my name badge off. So, no real-name badges allowed, and no badges with twitter handles either. In other words, it was very difficult to meet any of the people who I know on twitter – anonymous or otherwise. [But importantly, it turns out there was actually NO official no-badge policy at #SFNbanter! And I want it to be clear: I did meet some people, and had great time.]

So I did what I always do when I have a question about the internet: I talked to Baxter (that’s Professor Mark Baxter, Mount Sinai, @markgbaxter). Profs like me, Baxter (and, I am guessing, Vince) are at a point where we care a lot less than we used to about what people think of us. It is one of the great joys of getting older. We’re at a stage at which we can afford to say what we think (well, more or less).

But undergrads, PhD students, even post-docs, are battling fierce competition for their next position every few years. They can’t afford to make enemies. So I can see why they might feel the need to be anonymous, in order to be healthily sceptical and constructively critical, as every scientist should be … but with (relative) impunity.

The downside to that approach, however, is this: I’ve encountered young (I presume) tweeters/bloggers in my area whose thoughts, writing and attitude impress me greatly. If I had a position going, or knew of someone with such a position going, I’d contact them/ recommend them immediately. Problem is … they’re anonymous. Another missed opportunity.

So in a way, with anonymity, something is definitely lost. I don’t have a wide-ranging solution for this problem, of course. And I can’t change people; all I can do is ask what I might be able to do differently. What I come up with is probably pie-in-the-sky, but maybe what us PIs need to do is work on our egos such that we don’t make it personal, and hold grudges, when someone merely disagrees with us. As long as they’re not rude about it. Then maybe young people won’t be so scared to be themselves.

I did say it was pie-in-the-sky.

So to summarise, I guess I understand why a young scientist might feel the need to be anonymous.

But, if you’re a Prof using a pseudonym – dude, sort yourself out. [By this I meant ‘Prof’ as it is used in the U.K., to mean the final career stage (i.e., not N.A. Assistant or Associate Prof). So this a mild jokey-poke at my Prof colleagues. It’s been pointed out, though, that there are very good reasons anyone might choose to be pseudonymous — see, e.g., Zen Faulkes’ comment below.]

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10 thoughts on “Why Are You Anonymous?

  1. As a PhD student I angered the most important person in my field. I thought my career was over. It wasn’t. Half my field didn’t entirely respect the most important person in my field. On the other hand, I’ve been told about someone failing to get a prestigious fellowship at a famous university 30 years after she (as a newlywed!) had declined to sleep with faculty there as a postdoc.

    I’ve thought about anonymity mostly because of politics, not academia, but I think helping establish an honest, transparent system is the best protection for all of us.

    I do think that for some accounts anonymity is part of their power (and/or humour) — separating the person / reputation from the ideas can be a useful tool.

  2. Having psued’s may democratize things a bit, especially from the perspective of the very junior. I may be more willing to chat with “neuro_maniac45” than “Distinguished Professor Bennington Pennypacker III”. Especially since discussions tend to be more of the “I messed this experiment up and feel like a failure” type rather than “So I had 3 Science papers come out today”.

    Some of the pseudonymous people are willing to chat with real names if you ask them to (and have a reason). Also, a fair number of people have multiple accounts. Legal names and otherwise. If you really want to contact then. Especially regarding a job opportunity. Many (though not all) are willing to talk.

    • Those are good points; regarding the second it’s true; if I want to tell someone with a pseudonym about, e.g., a position, I could just direct-message them and then they can decide what to do …

  3. First, pseudonimity is not anonymity. I write under a pseudonym that is a coherent identity, with several means to communicate with that identity. You can hold my identity accountable for what I post. I use a pseud because, as a young female pre-tenure faculty, I don’t have the security to be able to participate in critical discussions about women in science. This way, I can write about issues related to my career and not worry about the risks, so long as my identity is largely protected.

  4. There are many reasons, personal and professional, for people to be circumspect while online. Have you ever received unwanted attention? Have you ever been harassed? Have you ever been stalked? Have you ever been on the receiving end of death threats? Because those things can and do happen to scientists online.

    If you have not experienced those, would you reconsider your position if they happened to you?

    I say this as someone who generally supports and encourages more people NOT to conceal their identity. For example:

    http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2009/10/should-we-give-up-anonymous-reviewing.html
    http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2010/02/anonymity-doesnt-make-science-better.html
    http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2010/06/vendetta.html

    Also relevant to this thread: The “Identity” session from Science Online 2013:

    Video: http://scienceonline.com/live/?id=26
    Storify: http://storify.com/scicurious/scio13-wrapup-identity

  5. A couple of people over on twitter have also pointed out the difference between pseudonymity and anonymity … I think you’re right, pseudonymity is more accurate in this case.

  6. Bashir makes an important point, which is that if you invest some time in the community and aren’t a creeper, many people will eventually trust you enough to “reveal” themselves. I have met easily dozens of people IRL who I originally encountered through twitter, and not just at BANTER. I’ve written a grant with someone I met on twitter (still awaiting score). The key is that you engage first, ask questions later. You are not the first person to be all “but WHYYYYYY won’t you just say who you AAAAAARRRRREE????” but you could be the first to readily accept that it’s part of the way things work, instead of demanding that we “sort it out.” Trust me, we have it sorted.

    • Thanks for commenting Dr Becca. That’s a pretty good summary of what I was trying to say: I know you have it sorted … and regarding ‘sorted’, fellow Profs, it’s only a joke! (BTW Prof in UK is the final stage of one’s academic career — full prof in N.A.)

      And Dr B, just to be clear I had a fabulous time at BANTER!, there are just some people I would have liked to have met, that’s all …

  7. Ah I love living on the west coast – always late to the comment party. I do think that it makes sense for young untenured profs and trainees to have a pseudonym when commenting online. That said there are times when being anonymous is important even for me (a full professor) for example when giving blind reviews to papers. I am much more likely to be constructively critical when my identity is blind to the authors. Note the word constructive. However I also believe that most senior (and junior) scientists SHOULD be approachable for comments about their theories – this results in- hopefully- engaging and constructive banter. Unfortunately there are those scientists that are not willing to talk about their theories or experimental results (and I am sure younger scientists fear repercussions from challenging existing theories from the ‘giants’). However for those senior scientists that are not willing to engage…I am more leery of their doctrine. I hold to Tim Minchin’s ideals of opinions ( ie theories) in that they should be thoroughly examined every day. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoEezZD71sc) and if you are not willing to discuss – it makes me suspicious (rightly or wrongly). It doesn’t do science any favours if people aren’t willing to openly discuss ideas and concerns. Unfortunately the way we do the business of science doesn’t always lend itself to being open.

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