Adventures in Ethics and Science

I’ve talked about a number of these issues before, but since Abel and PalMD are having some conversations (here, here, here, here, here, and here) in preparation for their session at ScienceOnline09, and since I’ve experienced the blogosphere on both sides of the pseudonymous line, I thought I’d pipe up.

Some good reasons (from the top of my head) to blog under a pseudonym:

  1. Your workplace frowns on blogging (even if you are not blogging about work at all) and you want to stay employed.
  2. You are a student whose advisor will equate your blogging with time not spent doing research (even though you only sacrifice the time you would otherwise have spent sleeping, eating, exercising, or otherwise attending to your physical or mental well-being to write the blog).
  3. You’re about to go on the job market and you have no idea whether prospective employers will view blogging favorably or unfavorably.
  4. You are trying to get a promotion/tenure and you have no idea how the committees that will be deciding whether to promote/tenure you view blogging.
  5. The subject matter about which you blog is something utterly distinct from your professional identity — and you’d like to keep it that way.*
  6. The subject matter about which you’re blogging (say, your political or religious beliefs, your sexual identity, your body image, your substance dependance) is something you’re still working through — and you’d rather not have all the people you interact with in your day-to-day life barge in on the safe pseudonymous space in which you’re trying to work it through.
  7. You want to be judged on the basis of what you have to say, not on the basis of who people think you are from your identifying details.
  8. Blogging about what you blog about under your own name might significantly reduce your safety. (This might include doing research with animals, providing reproductive health care services, even just blogging about events in the region where you live if there’s a creep stalking you.)

There are certainly ways to violate trust while blogging under a pseudonym, but people blogging under their real names can break trust with their readers, too. Trust is a tricky issue, on both the giving and receiving side.

There’s no guarantee if you’re blogging under a pseudonym that your real-life identity will stay secret. Technology makes the leg-work to out someone do-able (and sometimes bloggers themselves provide all too many of the necessary clues). However, I doubt that being outed is inevitable.

Of more concern to me are instances where, on the basis of a handful of clues, someone outs the wrong person as a pseudonymous blogger. If the misidentified person is asked to stand to account for what the pseudonymous blogger has written, that’s not so good. If the misidentified person is harassed, that’s even worse.

Also check out the discussions at DrugMonkey (here, here, and here).

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*For example, I work very hard to keep my views about politics, religion, and who should win Project Runway out of my teaching-interactions. Because I blog under my own name (which means my students can find my blog quite easily), I try to stay clear of these topics in my blogging. If I were still blogging under a ‘nym, I wouldn’t have to.

Comments

  1. #1 Susan B.
    October 22, 2008

    Any advice for someone who has been blogging under her own name but is considering switching to a pseudonym? Not that I’m considering it at this time, but it’s something I might want to do in the future, and it would mean starting from scratch. There doesn’t seem to be any way to encourage current and new readers to check out a new pseudonymous blog without revealing one’s identity.

  2. #2 Bert Chadick
    October 22, 2008

    Blogging under my own name acts as a social governor on my ravings. I’m harsh and combative enough without being able to do it from behind a bush. Stalking is more of a problem for women than old fat guys, but I suppose it could happen. There are plenty of unhinged nuts roaming free.

    So long as we are a fearless and generous people we will be a free people.

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 22, 2008

    I blog pseudonymously because it is fucking fun! It is a very powerful rush to know that people demonstrate tremendous respect for what I have to say without knowing anything about who I really am, what I look like, what “credentials” I possess, etc. It is also totally fucking hilarious to piss off anti-pseud assholes whose real-world “credentials” don’t mean jack shit when it comes to credibility and respect in the blogosphere.

  4. #4 CW
    October 22, 2008

    Kathy Sierra might have some input on the subject.

  5. #5 HP
    October 22, 2008

    I’m not sure that “pseudonymity” is the right way to think about a person’s choice of screen name. What’s the difference between calling yourself “AbelPharmboy” and calling yourself “Mark Twain” or “Vanilla Ice”? A screen name is no different than a pen name or a stage name. It’s not a pseudonym, because there’s no intent to deceive.

    Blogging is a performance. I think bloggers choose a screen name because they feel it reflects something about their interests and personality. A good screen name is as much a part of the blog as the blog title or the page layout.

    Everybody knows that Atrios is Duncan Black, just as everybody knows that Cary Grant is Archie Leach. You don’t dismiss Grant’s performance in Bringing Up Baby just because he’s acting under a pseudonym.

    The name you choose is part of who you are, moreso perhaps than the name you were given.

    One characterization of a screen name like PalMD is that you can tell it’s not a real name. Suppose that PalMD were to announce he was giving up his screen name, and now blogging under his real name, Steve Baxter. That’s great, except that Steve Baxter is a name I just made up. It sounds plausible, but it is a deliberately deceptive pseudonym, intended to hide his real name. Whereas PalMD is who he really is, at least onscreen.

  6. #6 Cuttlefish
    October 22, 2008

    Mostly #5 and #7 for me, but also just on principle.

    http://digitalcuttlefish.blogspot.com/2008/04/on-anonymity.html

  7. #7 ScienceWoman
    October 22, 2008

    You’ve got a pretty good list of reasons for a ‘nym. I’d add at least one more.

    #9. You want google searches on your real name to land on your professional web space first, rather than on your blog.

    (And blogs can grow more widely popular than professor’s websites!)

  8. #8 Gerry L
    October 23, 2008

    I’m not actively blogging at this time, but when I did — and in my email — I don’t use my real name because my name is unique. I’m probably the only person in the country with my name, possibly in the world.

    People with names like John Smith or Susan Dawson may have a problem being found in a world where dozens of people in a large city may have the same name. People with unique names have different concerns.

  9. #9 scicurious
    October 23, 2008

    Reasons 1-3 for pseudonyms hit it right on the head for me, and a very big one is 8. I assume many people who read my blog are ok with animals used in research, but I really don’t want to take the chance of blogging under my real name, and come in one day to find my entire thesis destroyed. Or to come home one day and find my house attacked.

    There’s also the fact that a pseudonym is often more interesting or catchy to people than my real name. It’s another little thing used to pull in people to my blog. People don’t care who I really am, but they have images in their minds when they see “scicurious”.

  10. #10 gillt
    October 23, 2008

    My blog name is not a pseudonym; it is real but (hopefully) just vague enough because of 1, and maybe 3. I’m a freelance writer and would love to blog under my full name, but my employer warns against it.

  11. #11 Kapitano
    October 23, 2008

    In my profession of ESL teaching, this blog is required reading. It’s simply a safe place to discuss and decide which of the many employers are best avoided. It’s saved me from making what would have been a truely disaterous career decision.

    Why is the space safe? Because it’s anonymous. If the owner’s anonymity were to be compromised, they’d face dozens of lawsuits from cowboys with expensive lawyers.

    If you’re searching for and publicising truths that unsavoury types want hidden, anonymity is sometimes not just useful, it’s vital.

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