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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