i-9dc84d4d9156dccb30d5f62466b4219a-swblocks.jpgI find it so refreshing that a bunch of guys are debating the value of anonymity/pseudonymity/identity and its relationship to trust as pseudonymous Abel Pharmboy and decloaked Dr. Pal prepare for their session at ScienceOnline09. I think that sometimes pseudonymity is considered a women’s issue, because of concerns about harassment or easy identifiability of a woman blogging in a male-dominated field. I think Abel is raising some interesting questions about pseudonymous health blogging and how readers know whether to trust what they read.

But here’s what going through my mind when I read some of these discussions: “Who cares?”

Maybe that’s because the corner of the internet where I can usually be found (i.e., blogs by women in STEM fields) is populated largely by pseudonymous bloggers and commenters (and lots of lurkers), so pseudonymity is the norm not an aberation. There are some great real-name bloggers out there (hi Alice, Suzanne, and Peggy), but many of our women in science all-stars (FSP, YFS, Isis, Brazen Hussy, Jane, etc.)*

Also, the I think issue of trust is different in our community than in other parts of the science blog universe. Most of us are not using women-in-science blogs as a way of increasing our scientific knowledge. They are certainly no substitute for reading journal articles or time at the bench, field, or model. We are using women-in-science blogs to to learn from others, get tips on career development, cooking, paper-writing, and child-rearing. We are using women-in-science blogs to participate in a community of people who work in scientific/engineering fields and are interested in combining our demanding career with *some* sort of life outside the lab. And in this sort of community, it seems to be less important whether the blogger is Ariel, an astronomer in Arizona, than whether the blogger can provide insight into how to reach for the stars while keeping your feet on the ground. (And commenters too have such an important role in this community when you provide support, constructive criticism, sympathy, and encouragement).

So I don’t care whether you are a biologist, a physicist, or an engineer. I don’t care whether you are an undergraduate or a full professor. If you can be leaned on and you can be learned from, I think you’ll find the women-in-science blog community welcoming, trusting, and trustworthy. Whether you write with a pseudonym or not.

* You are all all-stars in my book. I was just trying to pick on some that seem to have a big readership.


  1. #1 ScientistMother
    October 22, 2008

    Well said SW! The other thing that you haven’t mentioned is that some of us (myself, YSF and others) have openly talked about issues regarding harassment – both sexual and otherwise. I never lodged a compliant against my MSc Advisor. I totally should have, but because I did not I do not feel that I can not openly talk about my experience without it turning into a he / she said, disgruntled student narrative. On my blog, I can talk about it. I can say it happened to me and it never should have. Some of us feel more comfortable talking about some issues when we are pseudonymous because it is then that we feel we have the freedom to be honest.

  2. #2 Alice
    October 22, 2008
  3. #3 Academic
    October 22, 2008

    Pseudonyms also allow for a discussion that really can’t happen with real names. I also think that it evens the discussion where professor-types enter into the dialog at a similar point to the more student-types.

  4. #4 Dr. Free-Ride
    October 22, 2008

    Abel and Pal may be the ones moderating the discussion at pseudonymity at the conference, but they’re not the only ones discussing the issue on the blogosphere right now. (And some of us are women.)

    But you knew that!

  5. #5 Jane
    October 22, 2008

    Hear hear! Also, I kind of like pseudonymity because it allows me to talk about issues in a freer way, without anyone applying the filter of “well, she just says that because she works in X subfield or at Y type of institution”. We spend so much of our professional (and personal) lives being judged by our life choices…it’s kind of nice to remove that sort of judging from how people read our posts.

  6. #6 Abel Pharmboy
    October 23, 2008

    The reasons why women-in-science bloggers use pseudonyms is incredibly important and, as Dr Free-Ride noted, the particular issues for women in STEM is not at all lost on me in helping to organize this session. From my original post asking for reader input:

    PalMD and I will be leading a discussion session on the needs and justification for anonymity or pseudonymity in blogging. Women bloggers have additional needs for blogging under a pseudonym and PalMD and I are currently enlisting such unadvertised participants so as not to, you know, compromise their identity.

    In fact, the issue of pseudonymity will no doubt begin in the session on blogging on gender issues and continue into the separate session on pseudonymity. Of additional relevance is that SW and PropterDoc will be leading a session on how one’s online persona changes as one’s career progresses.

    This is a great post, SW, and the comments so far represent major issues in the fabric of pseudonymity that extend well beyond our blogging about the science itself. Keep ’em coming and I’ll be compiling all. Rest assured that there will also be pseudonymous women-in-STEM bloggers present at the unconference to represent these particular points – in fact, I’d encourage such women and all commenters to contribute to the wiki for the session:

  7. #7 PalMD
    October 23, 2008

    Of course, as soon as you’re outed, all of your previous conversations online belong to…the real you.

  8. #8 microbiologist xx
    October 23, 2008

    I initially started blogging anonymously because I wanted to discuss some of the idiotic rules scientists working in a BSL3 on a select agent (easily weaponized microbe) encounter and I didn’t want to get my PI into trouble. I never really ended up discussing these things (not that I won’t), however, as long as I am working for someone, I worry about my comments somehow causing them problems.
    However, I will say, I never realized such a supportive community of women were out there and I find myself wondering who everyone is more than I imagined I would.

  9. #9 Peggy
    October 23, 2008

    I considered blogging under a pseudonym when I started out, and decided it was just too much trouble. But it does mean that there are some personal experiences that I just don’t feel comfortable writing about. I think a pseudonym does allow more open conversation, both because it allows people to write without having to worry so much about the personal consequences, and, as Academic points out, it does seem to allow an easier discussion between people at different points in their careers.

    Also, as someone who has trouble remembering names, I often find pseudonyms to be easier to recognize. That may just be my problem, though.

  10. #10 Abel Pharmboy
    October 24, 2008

    SW and Alice, could I ask you to check your spam filter for a comment I left yesterday after Dr. Free-Ride’s that explained a little more about my intentions for inclusiveness on the ScienceOnline’09 session? I had a couple of URLs in there and I received a message that the comment was being held for moderation. Thanks!

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