Dispatch from the Nymwars: Pseudonyms and science

Xeni has been posting here about Google+'s refusal to allow people to set up an account under invented (rather than legal) names. She's been focusing on how this relates to Internet culture, in general, and what it means for Google+ and the people who hoped it might be a better place to be social than Facebook.

I'd like to talk very briefly about what it means for scientists. As a science journalist, I'm kind of a middle person, taking information from scientists and presenting it to the public. Increasingly, though, scientists have found ways to take part in that conversation more directly—something that I think is good for scientists, good for the public, and good for science journalists. And blogging, often pseudonymous blogging, is a big part of that.

Why pseudonymous? That's an interesting question, and it's one that the scientist-bloggers themselves have been answering a lot lately, not only because of the G+ Nymwars, but also because of what's happening at Science Blogs. This blogging network, home to quite a few scientist-bloggers, was recently bought by National Geographic, which decided that bloggers could no longer blog under the pseudonyms they'd been using for years.

Personally, I think there are benefits and detriments to anonymity on the Internet, but there's a big difference between being anonymous and having a pseudonym. I may not know who DrugMonkey is in real life, but I know who DrugMonkey is and I know that he has to be as responsible for everything he writes under that name as I am responsible for what I write as Maggie Koerth-Baker. The difference is that writing is my profession. It's not his. Instead, he has to balance the needs of a profession in laboratory science with the needs of a writing hobby. For people who do that, there are a lot of reasons why pseudonyms make sense. For example:

• As Dr. Isis—pseudonymous blogger and professional physiologist— wrote, what a scientist writes for a blog and what they write about their research is aimed at very different audiences. If you want both those audiences to be able to easily find what they are looking for, then it makes a lot of sense to have two different names.

• Blogging gives scientists a higher profile than they might have otherwise had. And that means that there are more people they are likely to offend, which makes them more vulnerable to threats. Simply put: Sometimes scientists get physically threatened when their research doesn't support the "right" pet theory. Pseudonyms make it harder to transfer harassment from the Internet to a scientist's day job.

• Finally, there are a whole bunch of reasons for pseudonymity centered around the fact that scientist-bloggers aren't professional writers. They're professional scientists. Often employed by older people who don't understand why they'd want to blog, or what the value is in doing that, or who'd worry about how a subordinate's blog will reflect on them. I'm a writer. My bosses expect me to write. That's not true for scientists. Janet Stemwedel at the Ethics and Science blog has a great list tied to this, which goes a long way toward explaining why a scientist-blogger might want to be anonymous, while a journalist-blogger would not.

Ultimately, I think this debate has a lot to do with two opposing forces. First, the internet makes it easier to participate in public conversation in a way that only the media was able to do before. Second, just because you want to take part in that conversation doesn't mean you want to be (or are) media. Given that, how do you apply standards of ethics that were designed for a completely different world? I don't really know the answer to this puzzle, but I think it's an increasingly important issue. How do you apply the (often quite reasonable) rules that govern media when the only thing that determines whether or not you are media is if you say so? Until we figure this out, the Nymwars are going to rage on.

Image: Hello, My Name is . . ., a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from psanford's photostream.

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  1. Frankly Scarlett is really good! Wish I’d thought of it.

    I guess the old favorite it reminds me of–“May I be Frank? I’ll be Earnest if you like.”–doesn’t work in this context.

  2. Interesting. I hope more people weigh in on the pseudonym issue, if only to understand how the policy affects people from different backgrounds.

  3. “The difference is that writing is my profession.”

    Yep, not to be ignored. If anyone felt like paying me for my opinions I’d be more willing to pay the cost of giving my real identity.

  4. I’m a fiction writer who writes under both my real name and a pseudonym. Sex Scenes at Starbucks is also a fairly well known handle in certain circles. The idea that I have to cut out part of my identity(s) in Google+ is annoying and inconvenient. Blogger is a Google company too. Does this mean it will go anti-pseudonym as well? And if not, why?

  5. The idea that a scientist-blogger needs to have a nym is even less sensical than the usual defense of nymity. Plenty of scientists blog under their real names: Jonathan Eisen, Rosie Redfield, T. Ryan Gregory, Jerry Coyne, heck even myself, although it has been three years since I really had an active blog. Part of the whole problem with the public misunderstanding of science is that too many people get their idea of science from cranks — knowing exactly whom you getting information from and their experience and educational background are crucial to evaluating the quality of the information unless you know the field yourself.

    As for anonymity of peer review: 1) as an editor, the reviewers aren’t anonymous to me, I choose them based on knowing exactly who they are; they are only anonymous to the authors, and if publicly available, the public.  2)  there is a growing realization within the science field that the anonymity of peer review is not necessarily a good thing for the same reasons it is problematical elsewhere. Many journals suggest signing peer reviews and some even require it.

    1. The idea that a scientist-blogger needs to have a nym is even less sensical than the usual defense of nymity. Plenty of scientists blog under their real names…

      That shows that not all scientist-bloggers need nyms. The article is about whether any need nyms, and if you check, it mentions a number of good reasons some might.

      1. That shows that not all scientist-bloggers need nyms. The article is about whether any need nyms, and if you check, it mentions a number of good reasons some might.

        Yes, but the reasons given were pretty lame. It’s not as if bloggers using their real names shy away from controversial things that could potentially cause threats to themselves. Evolutionary biologists like Eisen and Coyne often deal with the wrath of creationists. Rosie Redfield publicly criticizes well-publicized but potentially flawed science such as the arsenic bacteria of Mono Lake. The fact that these scientists are willing to publicly speak out is exactly what we need more of. And, as a bonus, if you don’t use a nym, you don’t have to worry about people threatening to “expose” you by figuring out your real name.

        1. Surely if it’s bad enough that the police are investigating threats against some researchers, it’s bad enough that your excuse for posting pseudonymously isn’t lame.

          1. Surely if it’s bad enough that the police are investigating threats
            against some researchers, it’s bad enough that your excuse for posting
            pseudonymously isn’t lame.

            No, the reason why it is still lame is that presumably the researcher would still have to use his or her real name on the actual research paper which would presumably be the source of disgruntlement.

          2. The trouble is, the “source of disgruntlement” is very rarely the actual research paper, because the number of cranks who read the journals properly is pretty low. 

            The source of trouble is more usually some half-cocked web page / news story which misunderstands and misquotes two sentences at random – and is then believed as written.

            (If sports journalists behaved the way science journalists are required to, they’d be fired in a week.)

  6. Sorry, blogging or publishing is different from socializing with friends.  As far an “anonymous” or psuedonym blogging being better for avoiding harrassment or other attacks, I suggest you look at the long and sometimes difficult road of professional journalists, who have often published difficult articles using their real names to take on more powerful people than cranks with attitudes.

    If blogging wants to be taken as seriously as a form of journalism it needs to be honest and upfront with people, and hiding behind a pseudonym is not building credibility, since somebody hiding behind a pseudonym could be anybody.

    Finally, I’ve yet to hear any of the people attacking google offer a good solution for the confusion that pseudonyms cause when you transition your online persona into real life.  I don’t have to have to have a secret decoder when I go looking for my friend Joe online, I want to be able to find Joe, and know it’s Joe.

    Pseudonyms make sense for forums, but for social networks they offer nothing but confusion.

    1. If your friend Joe wants to be found, then he will have a G+ account with the name Joe attached to it.  This has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not he has an additional G+ account for the pseudonym that he uses for his anthropomorphic bondage blog.  

      1. If your friend Joe wants to be found, then he will have a G+ account with the name Joe attached to it.

        You assume that Joe has thought things through, and isn’t just naming his account “LordSatan666” because he thinks it’s cute, and isn’t thinking about what it will take the rest of us to find him, and make contact.

        G+ isn’t a blog, it’s a social network, and anything that makes it harder to make contact is more sand in the gears.

        1. The phrase “social network” does not in and of itself imply “real names”- remember MySpace?  It implies a network of people who wish to interact socially.  I interact socially with people through both a pseudonym and my real name and I see viable, reasonable reasons to keep those separate.  Just because your friend Joe has a poor grasp of this and how it works doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing.  

        2. This is absolutely true – but insufficient reason to deny pseudonyms. Maximum-efficiency-of-contact is certainly a design goal, but it shouldn’t be the only design goal. Social-network norms of behaviour are likely to sort this problem out reasonably efficiently in the long run.

        3. It’s his choice to be found or not. That’s the point. If he uses the name “LordSatan666” and can’t connect with any of his friends, he may re-think that choice and re-name the account, or open a new one.

          I think that this is a case of power over verses power with. Do you have power over your friend Joe to force him to let you find him if YOU want to? Or do you have power with him to connect online in a way that you both agree to?

    2. I suggest you look at the long and sometimes difficult road of
      professional journalists, who have often published difficult articles using their real names to take on more powerful people than cranks with attitudes.

      …and frequently suffered for it. This is the brilliant, noble, beating heart of journalism. But it shouldn’t be necessary for every scientist who wants to offer a voice of reason in public to risk social, physical or professional harm to do so. (Look what it cost Ben Goldacre… and he did have the resources of a newspaper to back him up.) It’s hard to see how we benefit from requiring every scientist who wants to speak to be a journalist as well.

      If blogging wants to be taken as seriously as a form of journalism it
      needs to be honest and upfront with people, and hiding behind a
      pseudonym is not building credibility, since somebody hiding behind a
      pseudonym could be anybody.

      Your statement requires at least two (silly) assumptions:
      1) That the only reason for a scientist to blog/social network is journalistic.
      2) That a pseudonym cannot build a (separate) reputation and credibility. Archibald Leach, Farrokh Bulsara, Marion Morrison and Ramón Estévez might disagree. Or for more directly relevant examples, Charles Dodgson or Mary Ann Evans.

      (I don’t need to know Antinous’ name to reliably and credibly identify his posts as coming from delightfully-sarcastic-BB-forum-moderator-I-like-to-read. Pseudonyms can still be defended against imposture.)

      Finally, I’ve yet to hear any of the people attacking google offer a
      good solution for the confusion that pseudonyms cause when you
      transition your online persona into real life.  I don’t have to have to
      have a secret decoder when I go looking for my friend Joe online, I want
      to be able to find Joe, and know it’s Joe.

      Mostly because there’s no need; adequate solutions are easy. If Joe’s that much of a friend, you probably already know his favoured pseudonym. If you don’t, then 1) see if he also has a real-life-name network, 2) ask, or 3) he didn’t want you to, and the system is working as he intended – keeping his online writing separate from his RL friends.

      1. But it shouldn’t be necessary for every scientist who wants to offer a voice of reason in public to risk social, physical or professional harm to do so.

        They don’t have too, but I’m going to have less respect for somebody who doesn’t identify themselves, or expose their credentials.  At that point they have just as much authority as I do, on any topic they wish to expound upon.  My exposing their credentials I can double check who they are, and what their existing reputation is, rather than go through the long and exhaustive process of reading everything their pseudonym has published.

        (Also G+ isn’t the only place to blog on the ‘net)

        If Joe’s that much of a friend, you probably already know his favoured
        pseudonym. If you don’t, then 1) see if he also has a real-life-name
        network, 2) ask, or 3) he didn’t want you to, and the system is working
        as he intended – keeping his online writing separate from his RL
        friends.

        That’s great for my very close friends, not so great for acquaintances I’ve lost contact with, people I’m casually connected with, or new friends.  It’s also confusing trying to remember yet another name for somebody when we as human beings are so poor at remembering one name.

    3. “When I go looking for my friend Joe online, I want to be able to find Joe, and know it’s Joe.”

      It should be up to Joe to decide how he is found, not up to you to.

      This isn’t about “posting with pseudonyms” — it’s about owning the right to present your identity as you desire and to who you desire.  A right that, barring criminal investigation, should not be infringed upon by government or corporations.  It doesn’t matter how lame or serious the reasons to do so actually are, it’s about having the right to do so.

      1. It should be up to Joe to decide how he is found, not up to you to.

        Sounds like you haven’t tried to organize anything major in RL with your pseudonym friends.  It’s majorly distracting, particularly when you’re first going to a new place.

        If Joe doesn’t want to be found, opening up a “social” networking site account sounds like a bad idea. Sorta like if you don’t want to be found, you get an unlisted number.

    4.  I don’t want to have to have a secret decoder when I go looking for my friend Saba on Google+, but sadly I do because Google makes him use a two-part name that I’ve never known him by.  I have plenty of friends who I’ve known in real life for years, sometimes decades, by their autonyms, not by their birth names.  That makes it really hard to find my friends on Google+ since I often can’t remember or may not even know the names Google+ makes them use.

      tl;dr – don’t assume what’s true for you is true for others, and it would be nice if Google+ would support the diversity that exists in real life.

      1. This is so true. I sent invites to a bunch of people on a forum I’ve been on for years where I’ve never met any of the people IRL. And yes, as they accepted the invites, I had no freaking clue who was who and why they were adding me to their circles…

    5. Actually, I would contend that G+ already has a fairly decent mechanism for finding your friend Joe online—even if he’s not a member of G+ yet. Google allows you to add people to circles based solely on their email address.

      Consequently, if you’re a good enough friend of Joe to know his email address, just add that to your friends circle. My (still suspended) account has had several people “go live” on G+ since I last checked it a week or so ago, for example, because I added them by email address as soon as I got on G+.

  7. See also – Orac’s post on one semi-pseudonymous medical blogger being force out of blogging by an anti-vax troll: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2011/08/the_consequences_of_blogging_under_ones.php
    And PZ Myers on the same subject: http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/08/22/rhett-s-daniels-litigious-bully/

  8. So is the problem here that people want to use Google+ as a blogging platform or something? Why not just use LiveJournal or one of the other dozens of blogging platforms out there for your pseudononymous publishing needs, and leave Google+ to your real identity. If you want a connection between the two, use a link – if not, don’t. Is it so much to ask that we have one place on the internet where no one is hiding behind an alias?

    1. There’s already a place where no one (should be, anyways) hiding behind an alias- that’s Facebook, which was created with the intent to link students who go to the same university together.  Real names work alright there because of the original intent of the site.  G+, on the other hand, combines a lot of the best features of Facebook and Twitter, and in a lot of ways, it makes sense to use it as a combination of the two.  People don’t necessarily want to use it as a blogging platform- perhaps they just want to maintain a social presence to coordinate with their existing web presence (see Ryan North’s excellent use of the platform).  Basically, G+ is so awesome at what it does that people are finding exciting new ways to use it- you couldn’t realistically use Facebook as a blog/Twitter/etc..  I don’t see why we should knock it for that.  

  9. If some kind and thoughtful person would only send me an invite for Google+ I will promise to come up with a more entertaining screen name than Frankly Scarlett.

    1. I’ll invite you and anyone else who can put a period between my first and last name and then add an “@gmail.com” to the end of it.  

  10. Apropos of ‘nyms online and the usual (and not all that convincing) “but what about the GIFT” argument: how about a new theorem and acronym to encapsulate how the long-term use of an internet name, coupled with responsible and coherent behavior, leads to bona fide identity?

    I hereby propose NICK: ‘Nym + Years + Consistency = Kudos.

    The NICK theorem to refute the poisoned GIFT… ;-)

  11. I’ve been using pseudonyms (and nom de pranks) online for well over 20 years now. I used to log on to local bulletin boards with a C64 back in the day, and I don’t recall anyone using their real name as a user name, myself included. When I logged onto the internet, it just seemed like a good idea to continue with the practice.  And the reasons to keep doing so just seem to grow exponentially with each passing day.

    Why I keep it up: 

    -My real name is unique, and I am protective of it.
    -The less data attached to me, the better. Cross
    -When you get right down to it, I’m not at all hard to find in real life. Make some effort, will ya?
     
    If one’s livelihood compels someone to have an online presence (for example, our esteemed hosts here at BB), I think it is perfectly legit to have a nom de plume for that purpose.  

  12. “… when I go looking for my friend Joe online, I want to be able to find Joe, and know it’s Joe.”

    If “real” names are required online, and you’re assuming “Joe” is his real name. Did you ask for a government-issued ID?

    Google+ asks that you use the name you are commonly known by; for some of us, that isn’t the name on our birth certificate or ID. I’ve been going by Ysengrin for over thirty years. That’s how people are going to be looking for me.

  13. My name is Mike Hutchins.

    On the rare occasion I post on Facebook, I post under my own name. That works quite well among my small circle of friends and family.

    But I am also a gamer, and a longtime user of Usenet. On my newsgroups, and on the forums for the games I play, I post as The Beatnik, or some variation thereof. Those with whom I interact online, for the most part, would be confused should I start posting under my real name rather than my psuedonym. I experienced this for myself in the early days of G+, when a good portion of my time was spent peering intently at unfamiliar “real” names, and trying to discern which were friends, which were mere acquaintances, and which were spammers. The only names that were instantly familiar to me were the psuedonyms. Those names are now banned, their accounts abandoned, thanks to Google’s implementation of their policy.

    So, for me, the policy has had the opposite of the originally stated intent.

  14. Stable pseudonyms sound like a good answer for many communities, but I’m curious how those communities deal with impersonation.  For example, if CmdrTaco (founder of Slashdot.org) has a well-known identity with that name, and I start a CmdrTaco account to impersonate him, does he have any recourse?  Who is to say that I’m not also CmdrTaco?

    1. Well, the same thing exists with legal names. My birth-name was Elizabeth Sterling Wall. That seemed like a strange enough name that I should be the only person in the world with that name, I thought. Over the course of my life I ran into two other women with exactly the same name. One was a 96 year old woman who used the same doctor that I did when I was 18. Who other was a woman in Canada who was doing graduate work in the same field in which I was doing my undergraduate studies. 

  15. I think the solution to this problem is capitalism.  Don’t use services that don’t allow you to do what you want to do.  Want to be anonymous? Don’t use Google+!  Use something else like Diaspora or even facebook.

    Part of being passionate about things like this is to not allow your deeply held desires about anonymity be subjected by your desire to be on the cool-kids social network.

    1. G+ is 1) awesome, 2) in beta, 3) looking for feedback.  People are just trying to tell them about features they’d like.  

  16. there are a whole bunch of reasons for pseudonymity centered around the
    fact that scientist-bloggers aren’t professional writers. They’re
    professional scientists. Often employed by older people who don’t
    understand why they’d want to blog, or what the value is in doing that,
    or who’d worry about how a subordinate’s blog will reflect on them.

    One of the book series that I re-read many times when I was young was written by a famous science and science fiction writer, Paul French.  Oh, wait, he’s actually better known as Isaac Asimov.  But at the time, he didn’t want to have his more serious work tainted by fiction targeted at a different audience.

    He also famously *tried* to publish a spoof scientific paper under a pseudonym, worried that it would damage him in his doctoral examination if it was taken badly.  It was thankfully taken in good humor, though they did make him sweat over it.

    Long before blogging came to be, of course.  Everything old is new again.

  17. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, when I was at Bell Labs, standard corporate policy was to use slightly-psuedonymized names for both internal and publicly published documentation about our work.   The standard name format was [initial(s)] [family-name], rather than using personal-name and family name, so papers that I wrote or co-authored would list me as “W. C. Stewart”, plus a department number.  As far as I could tell, this was primarily done to remove gender information and to some extent ethnic information from names, with a goal of reducing possibly bias, as well as just being formal for the sake of formality. 

  18. Google Plus is trying to bring back those half page long disclaimers at the bottom of every post stating exactly in what context and under what authority the statement is being issued. You now, those long statements that this note does not reflect the views of blah blah blah. These are as bad as EULAs and, like EULAs, are rarely read. A pseudonym makes it much easier to tell if what one is reading is ex-cathedra as opposed to informal.

    You can see a distinct division between people who evaluate others in terms of their “authority”, their official position in society, as opposed to those who evaluate others in terms of their actions and statements. This split is the primary distinction between conservative, authority and position oriented morality, and liberal , harm and fairness oriented morality. You can really see this played out in the various comments just on this post.

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