bioephemera

Recently, Scienceblogs/National Geographic decided it would no longer host pseudonymous science bloggers. As a result, many of my former colleagues have left. I think this decision was wrong. Read on for my reasons.

One: simple fairness. Several well-established pseudonymous bloggers had been active here for years. While it’s perfectly reasonable to set up a media site from scratch and institute a “no pseudonymous blogging” policy at that time, it’s quite another to change the rules and evict members of an established community. It violates my sense of fairness; it’s why we usually expect that when rules change, those affected will be “grandfathered in” and given an exception if possible. That didn’t happen here, and it disappoints me. (And all those broken permalinks where serious cross-blog discourse used to be? Don’t even get me started.)

Second: pseudonymity is not the same thing as anonymity. See here, here, here, etc. While many of us – including pseudonymous bloggers! – have been concerned for years about the internet facilitating incivility and anonymous hate speech, Scienceblogs’ new policy suggests that pseudonymous speakers are equally unaccountable/problematic. That’s simply not true. An established, stable pseudonym is an identity – an identity that, like an author’s nom de plume, can earn a reputation and credibility. I know most of our pseudonymous bloggers’ real identities. I met several of them in person. But that’s ultimately irrelevant to their legitimacy as bloggers. They earned my respect not by showing me their faces, but by maintaining a consistent voice, by posting reliable information, and by replying to critics and engaging in debate. Anonymous trolls don’t do those things.

Third: the policy (along with other policies recently instituted) reflects a traditional media framing – one in which content generators speak on behalf of a corporate entity. I did not come to Scienceblogs to speak on behalf of Scienceblogs. I came here with the understanding that I would have full creative control and autonomy. I am sure the pseudonymous bloggers felt the same. Like most bloggers here, I was bringing over an established blog, but if I had not been established – if I’d wanted to call myself J-Paw, use a LOLcat as my avatar, and write entirely in limericks – I could have done that as a blogger here, even though I certainly could not have done it as a SEED columnist. That’s because being the proprietor of an independently created blog and writing on behalf of a media outlet have been (and should be) understood to be different things. I understand that a media organization has valid reasons to eschew pseudonymous spokesmen. But I’m not here to be a spokesman (obviously I wouldn’t be writing this post if I were), and neither were the pseudonymous bloggers. Why treat them as if their pseudonymity somehow impugns the sacred National Geographic name?

Fourth: there are legitimate reasons to be pseudonymous. Privacy and safety spring immediately to mind. Given the history of real-world violence against animal researchers and abortion providers, are we surprised that bloggers covering those topics may not want to share their personal information? Are we surprised that bloggers wish to avoid harassment, or to keep their personal lives separate from their blogging? Suppose a female scientist decides to blog under a gender-neutral name because she wants to focus attention on her writing, not her attractiveness. Suppose a blogger wants to discuss controversial topics (on his own time) without fearing his employer will retaliate. Suppose a blogger simply likes the creative freedom of establishing a pseudonymous identity – who gets to say these are not valid reasons to blog pseudonymously? Although one might want to avoid accumulating too many personas, it’s up to the individual blogger to define the terms under which they feel comfortable and safe expressing themselves. As Orac explains,

Orac’s “real” identity is more or less an open secret among some parts of the blogosphere, but he nonetheless keeps using the Orac pseudonym because (1) he doesn’t want his blog to be the first thing that comes up when patients Google his “real” name; (2) he has a long history on the Internet under this particular pseudonym; and (3) he likes the persona that the “Orac” pseudonym allows him to take on. Indeed, even if Orac ever decides to ditch the whole anonymity thing, he will likely retain the pseudonym and simply place a link to his faculty page somewhere on the blog.

Most people have overlapping, but nonidentical, personal and professional aspects. We nurture our creative selves by blogging, while we nurture our professional selves by working and publishing scholarship, and we maintain our sanity by having private moments with loved ones. That Google+, Facebook, and other online behemoths want us to collapse all of our different aspects onto unitary, nonpseudonymous online identities has less to do with the way we naturally interact with one another and more to do with corporate monetization of online activity. I like what Isis said:

I’ve always considered being Dr. Isis like being Dr. Seuss. Taking this name for this purpose doesn’t change the things I say (or don’t say), or the fact that many who know me as Dr. Isis are also familiar with my scientific work, but it does allow me to carefully partition my lives. It lets me choose when to focus on science and when to focus on this place and gives me the power to prevent each from distracting the other.

And as Lindsay Beyerstein observed five years ago,

I know people who are pseudonymous because their writing could get them fired, or because they’re afraid that their political opinions might bring down the wrath of the current administration, or because they want to discuss very personal subjects without implicating themselves or their loved ones. If it weren’t for pseudonyms, these people wouldn’t be part of the discussion, and the blogosphere would be much poorer for it.

Let’s not even get into the long history of pseudonymous political expression in our country. Hat-tip to Ben Franklin.

Finally: I really hope this goes without saying, but credibility and authority are not automatically conferred by a name, degree, or title. I’m more likely to trust a pseudonymous source who year after year publishes reliable information that consistently checks out, than an editorial by John Doe, Ph.D. I may know John Doe’s name, but I know nothing else about him except what I can find on Google. How does that help me evaluate his authority as an author?

Equating credibility with a real name is especially galling in the realm of science blogging, because most posts on scientific topics are exhaustively sourced with links to the original sources/literature (unlike traditional science journalism). This makes it straightforward to fact-check, and the more voices you have in the blogosphere, the more checking there is. Credibility in science is the product of ongoing discourse and independent verification over time, and credibility online is likewise the product of discourse and verification over time (Orac’s “long history on the internet”). At least that’s how you should assess credibility, if you’re a critical reader. Pseudonymous science bloggers can, and do, acquire reputational authority – but that authority is based on their work, not their names. (In a rare sanitized moment, Physioprof described it as “a reserve of credibility and expertise with an extensive audience based solely on the reliability and excellence of [the blogger's] writing.”) Isn’t that good?

I once put it this way:

I assess sincerity, credibility and good faith online by an integration process – watching what people say and how they say it over a very long time, under real names or blog handles. I respect them based on their words, not their IRL achievements; I don’t even need to know who they are or what they do IRL.

And Janet put a cautionary spin on it:

The readers of a pseudonymous blog are responsible for knowing that they are unable to assess the biases of the blogger. The blogger could be anyone — someone sharing honest observations, or someone bent on manipulating readers by all manner of dishonest means. That, sometimes, is the price of protecting privacy — the privacy you’re protecting can undercut your credibility. The burden is on the readers to be critical consumers of information.

No critic of pseudonymity has ever explained to my satisfaction exactly what the big downside is of pseudonymous blogs. As I discussed above, pseudonymity is not anonymity; the two are separate issues. If you object to pseudonymity on principle, then it’s certainly your prerogative to discount pseudonymous writers’ words. If people don’t have the time to follow a specific blogger’s work, fact-check, think critically, and develop their own assessment of the writer’s biases (something which everyone should do prior to trusting any columnist, whether on a blog or at the New York Times) then there’s a simple solution: don’t read pseudonymous blogs. The ones here at Scienceblogs, at least, are pretty easy to spot: it’s blindingly obvious that “Drugmonkey” is a pseudonym, isn’t it?

There are plenty of non-pseudonymous speakers that I distrust, that I find offensive or inflammatory, that I wish would shut the heck up. Yet each voice contributes something to a marketplace of ideas. The Supreme Court has explained that protecting anonymity is important because it induces authors to speak who otherwise wouldn’t. We tolerate the worst to protect the best.

The pseudonymous bloggers who used to write at Scienceblogs are among the best. Drugmonkey’s critiques of NIH policy and guidance to young researchers navigating the grant system have been invaluable. Physioprof does similar work, (though with a different, er, style). Isis‘ humorous posts bring attention to sensitive issues of gender equity, but perhaps even more importantly, candidly mentor young women aspiring to science careers. Scicurious tirelessly transforms dense neuroscience papers to plain English. Mike the Mad Biologist is the modern-day incarnation of a classic political commentator: genuinely outraged but never incoherent. Orac – who is still here at least for the moment – critiques medical “journalism” and debunks rampant inaccuracies.

These are writers I want to read. I don’t care what their “real” names are.