Terra Sigillata

Well, PalMD and I have been working tirelessly on putting together a plan of discussion for the upcoming ScienceOnline’09 session on Anonymity and Pseudonymity – Building Reputation Online. Over the last several months, we have had a tremendous outpouring of comments on our own blogs and numerous other blogs that gives us far more fodder than could be discussed in a 75 minute unconference session. (Pal, I foresee a palcast on pseudonymity.).

I still contend in all seriousness that the following 18 October 2008 quote from PhysioProf (cross-posted on his solo site) deserves to be the opening discussion point on slide one (if we have any slides):

I think all this pseudonymity/anonymity handwringing is driven by the florid neuroses of a handful of non-pseudonymous bloggers who are outraged by the fact that their real-world credentials gain them no credibility at all in the blogosphere, while numerous pseudonymous/anonymous bloggers have developed–through the demonstrable value of their actual motherfucking content–tremendous respect and credibility. It pisses these weebly doucheknockers off that people laugh derisively at their inane gibberish and fancy-ass degrees, while taking very seriously the well-developed and well-written content of numerous pseuds, all of whom could very well be labrador retrievers with Windows passwords.

I’ve put up six posts under the tag, The Pseudonymity Laboratory, a category kicked off by my idea to reveal my identity publicly and the impact that might have on my perceived expertise and veracity. To my surprise, no one really seemed to care who I was (including my Mom – I mean that she didn’t think I should overtly reveal myself).

Among my favorites from the 30 or so comments on this initial post came from our colleague, Anonymoustache – his answer to my question, “Do you trust me?”:

Yes.
Because you live-blogged your vasectomy. That makes you a person to reckoned with even more than a person who always has a towel.

I mention Anonymoustache for this final post on the topic because he comments quite often on other blogs that routines address the research grant review process. I am hardpressed to find a single RealName blogger who posts on writing and critiquing research grants and addressing the entire research grant review process. Those who do are, of course, DrugMonkey and PhysioProf, DrDrA, writedit, Mike the Mad Biologist, juniorprof, and MsPhD, plus a slew of other folks who regularly comment on the posts, such as whimple, who don’t appear to have their own blogs. (Please add to my obvious oversights in the comments – I’ve just added a bunch of new blogs to my feeds and know that there are many more who write about grants and grantspersonship).

The immediate value of these pseudonymous discussions is the obvious desire to vent and gain insights as to the best ways to interpret grant critiques, strategize for resubmissions, and decide what funding mechanisms are best to pursue. Moreover, those of us who serve or have served on review panels can give inside dope on the generalities of the process; for example, DrugMonkey’s playwriting should truly be adapted to the stage (Act I, Act II) because these humorous accounts are quite universal across NIH’s 120 or so standing review panels.

Writing in this manner, without identifiers, is, to me, an ethical way of mentoring others (including ourselves) about the process without breaching the confidentiality of the process. Why we choose to remain pseudonymous grant-blogging so is manifold – for me, the primary reason is to avoid the implication that my views on this blog, often more flippant when compared with the respect and reverence I bring to the honor of reviewing, in any way influence my objectivity in reviewing grant applications.

Without belaboring the issue, I submit that writing under a pseudonym provides a much-needed academic and mentoring service to the scientific community, particularly for trainees who may or may not have such frank and strategic mentoring at their home institutions (*note that I speak mostly from the NIH and DoD grant review perspective since that’s what I know).

Any other points on this issue that you’d like to add?

Comments

  1. #1 perceval
    January 14, 2009

    It is also far easier to ask for mentoring and get help if you’re writing pseudonymously. Most of the stuff I would really like to pick experienced researchers’ brains about is confidential / tricky. I can’t do that on my own blog, because a couple of people from work know who I am. So I sit back, relax, and watch others ask the hard questions.

  2. #2 drdrA
    January 14, 2009

    Really nice post Abel! I benefit from the collective experience of you all, no question about that. There are so many intricacies of the paper and grant review process that I seek help with, and I tend to use myself as a case study… with many details scrubbed…. as you say, to protect the confidentiality of the process. I’m only anonymous on the surface, and that doesn’t allow me to be terribly open about particular topics.

  3. #3 DrugMonkey
    January 14, 2009

    For me it goes a little beyond just the flippant conversational tone.

    Everyone has biases. The notion that reviewers are capable of being objective and uninvolved evaluators of grant applications is the face of the NIH grant review business. Nevertheless it is completely false. Reviewers have perspectives habits and what I can only term tics when it comes to evaluation.

    Biases that are going to inflame some applicants who will insist they cannot possibly get a fair shake from such a reviewer. If they had certain confidence they knew who the reviewer was and what his or her biases were, anyway. The polite fiction* of anonymity allows all comers, including the rational part of the incensed applicant’s brain, to defuse the situation. Because you never know for sure

    I think that if a member of a study section was blogging about his or her views on grant review in an overt and open fashion it would potentially** compromise the function of that section.

    __
    *I may have to expand on this polite fiction in a post..hmmm.

    **A potential I have no interest in testing, thankyew.

  4. #4 Anonymoustache
    January 15, 2009

    Good post, AP, and valid points re the advantages of anon/pseudonymity in mentoring and review.
    My view is more basic and general, and I think I have mentioned this (as have others, I’m sure) way back in one of the discussions on pseudonymous blogging: Anon/pseudon bloggers build and maintain their credibility based primarily (solely?) on the content of their posts, not their real life (possibly BSD) reps. So it doesn’t get much better from an objectivity standpoint.

  5. #5 Anonymoustache
    January 15, 2009

    Didn’t quite complete the thought—basically that’s why I think that the Comrade Physioprof quote that you’ve highlighted serves not so much as a good way to begin discussion on the topic but as a great way to end any damned debate on it.

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