On the value of pseudonyms

Our new Scienceblogs overlords sure have great timing with their new pseudonymous blogging rules. For those who haven't run across that yet, National Geographic has decided to eliminate pseudonyms and force everyone with a blog remaining here (which is already dwindling) to blog under their real names. Meanwhile, out here in the real world, there's a new unfortunate case study (short version: "EpiGate") showing how blogging under one's real name can lead to serious threats and potential loss of employment, among other things.

I blog under my own name (obviously), but if I were starting out now, I probably wouldn't make that choice again. There are a lot of things I would love to write about on here, but can't--or won't--for a variety of reasons. For one, I'm untenured and would like to stay gainfully employed, and ideally even promoted and tenured this academic year, so it's difficult for me to talk about some of the more "slice of life" stuff on here. Even talking about being a woman in science and balancing work and personal issues (oh, there are so many stories I could tell there...) is kind of walking a fine line. I don't necessarily want people who google me for my science to come across posts on my kids' latest exploits, or various personal drama that might make for great blog posts, but also make it weird for external reviewers trying to fairly evaluate me, for instance. Second, I don't enjoy being harassed. Long-time readers will note that it's rare that I write about HIV denial, even though that was such a main topic of this blog once-upon-a-time that it even culminated in a journal article. It's just tiring to be harassed personally by deniers--and even moreso to have my colleagues and administration bullied.

And this is just what's happened to my colleague, EpiRen. He managed to tick off an online bully; said bully then called EpiRen's superiors, who gave him a choice between his blogging and his employment. Not surprisingly, EpiRen eventually ended up pulling his public blog and Twitter feed, to the detriment of anyone who wanted a good source of public health information on the internets.

There's an active discussion regarding the differences between blogging science as a scientist, and blogging as a journalist under one's real name. A journalist's job is to write for the public; a scientist's, honestly, is not--and so if National Geographic is serious about wanting to keep good scientists in their lineup (and others have noted that, truly, they likely don't give a shit), their decision to disallow pseudonymous blogging is shooting themselves in the foot. There are many valid reasons why a scientist may not want to be publicly identified on their blog--does that really make the information any less valid? Does NG really think that someone who may carry out experimental work with animals, and discuss animal research on their blog using a 'nym, would really choose their blogging hobby over their livelihood and--potentially--their family's safety? There are animal rights and anti-vaccine extremists to worry about; Carl Zimmer even points out recent threats aimed at Chronic Fatigue Syndrome researchers who have reached conclusions that some patients didn't like or agree with. Who can blame many scientists for wanting badly to share their work and insights with the general public, but doing so in a way that disassociates those posts from their "real life" identity?

These things aren't just theoretical. HIV denier Andrew Maniotis showed up, unannounced, at my work office one day a few years ago. The recently-arrested "David Mabus" showed up at an atheist convention. While using a pseudonym doesn't always protect you--certainly many pseuds have been outed by those willing to do the detective work--it at least offers you some measure of protection from threats, both online and off.

NG claims to have listened to reasons for blogging under a pseudonym, but have made this decision as a way to "establish best practices" in the industry. Well, I call shenanigans. They're freaking National Geographic--they can set the curve, and establish best practices by allowing (hey, even encouraging!) quality pseud bloggers. After all, would Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong be any less awesome if they were instead known as ParasiteGuy and RocketMan?

More like this

When you publish an article in a journal, you do so under your real name, right? I've never heard that journals allow pseudonyms. I think it's a matter of low-hanging fruit. Extremists looking for someone to attack are going to find easy targets on blogs, but if that well dries up, it won't be long until they head to their local university library and start reading those articles. Someone that's willing to spend the effort to plan and carry out a physical attack is probably also willing to do a little reading. And it just takes one person keeping a list on the internet, like the "pro-life" folks and their lists of abortion providers.

I'm not sure that anonymity or pseudonymity is a good solution for that, in the grand scheme of things. It's better for protecting your job; I would think even plausible deniability is probably enough for most employers, as long as you're not advocating against their interests.

By Tom Singer (not verified) on 23 Aug 2011 #permalink

I'm not sure why anyone is really surprised about this. Remember that Rupert Murdoch owns a large chunk of National Geographic and the rest of his media empire is hardly friendly to science. I think they'll do anything they can to reduce the impact/influence of science blogging.


OR maybe NatGeo doesn't really care to have posts on its network that relate to the life of a scientist and their personal grudges and problems. I think we scientists find these blogs really interesting because we can relate to them, but the NatGeo crowd probably couldn't care less. That removes a huge block of reasoning for writing under a pseud. Sure, writing on controversial topics might get you the wrong kind of attention, but I think Tom's response covers that topic well.

TS @ 1:

Someone that's willing to spend the effort to plan and carry out a physical attack is probably also willing to do a little reading.

And make ponies magically appear! Ponies! Wheeeeeee!

Seriously, dude, it's like you didn't even read the OP. Someone who would resort to physical threats is not someone who can all of a sudden be reasoned with.

@4, huh? I'm saying that someone who would resort to physical threats (and more so, someone who would resort to physical violence) is someone who is willing to skim through a couple of journal articles to find someone that is doing animal research or vaccine studies or what have you.

I don't think I made anything like the point that they could be reasoned with. If you still think that, could you elaborate a little?

By Tom Singer (not verified) on 23 Aug 2011 #permalink

I'm guessing that anybody convicted of murdering an abortion clinic doctor would serve to exonerate Tom's point. And we know that's happened more than once.

By Evil Monkey (not verified) on 23 Aug 2011 #permalink


I don't think I made anything like the point that they could be reasoned with.

That was the implication I took from your earlier post; clearly incorrect based on your subsequent one.

Based upon your clarification, though, aren't you arguing based on the ease of finding a needle in a haystack? Someone arguing with me about geologic time or the nature of science (and deciding to bully me about it) would be searching a lot of unrelated literature to try and track down my publications.

I'm saying if they want to violently protest an issue like animal research, it's relatively easy right now to find people who support animal reseatch by looking for non-pseuedonymous blogs. But if you take that avenue away, they're easily able to find targets with a negligible amount of additional effort. So while pseudonymity might protect one individual, I don't think it lowers the overall risk to the targeted community. Maybe a blogger incited violence by virtue of having a more general audience or being more argumentative than an author of a journal paper. But, as they say, haters gonna hate.

By Tom Singer (not verified) on 23 Aug 2011 #permalink

For me, the issue is less death threats, and more professional retaliation. Long, long before the EpiRen affair, Juan Cole, a medieval Arabic studies professor received an offer for a tenure-track position at Yale. That offer was rescinded due to political pressure from neocons (Cole was a prominent anti-Iraq War blogger). Cole had a job to fall back on however. If you're at at-will employee, you are in a very vulnerable position. Unless you have a strong contract, a tenured position, or are trying to 'establish your brand', you would be an idiot to write under your real name, especially if you want to write about controversial topics (scientific or otherwise).

Not implying Tara is an idiot though;)

@9, I don't deny that. I don't generally read academic journals. An interesting discussion surrounding one editor's decision whether to publish an article anonymously: http://www.wame.org/wame-listserve-discussions/anonymity-for-authors

One mention of a previously published anonymous article, and some discussion of why.

But, whether journals allow it or don't allow it, if you intend to make an academic career in a field, you have little choice but to publish under your real name. Maybe not everything you write, but almost certainly most of it. How do you advance, otherwise? How do you get research funding? For better or for worse, that's the way the system is set up, and I don't think that's changing any time soon. Simply by working in a field that attracts violent attention, you expose yourself to some risk.

Note that I'm not entirely sure what my point is - my original comment was sort of me thinking out loud - but I am sure that I'm not advocating that bloggers be required to do so under their real name, and I'm sure that I think it would be a bad thing if that was internet-wide policy. That said, if those are the bloggers that NatGeo wants their brand to be associated with ... I'm okay with that.

By Tom Singer (not verified) on 23 Aug 2011 #permalink

So what's NatGeo's endgame, here? The two biggest traffic getters on this site have already practically left. The talent roster is dwindling to pretty much nothing. Are they deliberately trying to sabotage their new investment?

NG likely wants the name and infrastructure to use to build its own blog network. I doubt it cares much about traffic of current bloggers.

NG likely wants the name and infrastructure to use to build its own blog network. I doubt it cares much about traffic of current bloggers.

I was thinking the same thing. Pharyngula never struck me as Nat Geo's core audience. Clicks and page visits are one thing, but advertisers prefer a bit less controversy. Glenn Beck lost substantial support from the market place, and he was more popular (and more controversial) than anyone on SciBlogs.It will be interesting to see who Nat Geo brings into the fold. Sciblogs might be better off if they move away from the politics of science and focus more on the history and philosophy of science. I am not saying avoid politics, nor should they eschew controversy. (Indeed, a recent Nat Geo article covered child brides.) However, if their largest audience comes for political blogs, then advertisers are going to be hesitant.

By Onkel Bob (not verified) on 25 Aug 2011 #permalink

There are many reasons people write under pseudonyms, and the use of a nom de plume is a time-honored tradition. (Mark Twain!) Moreover, it's become an integral part of internet culture and etiquette. If you're adopting a nom de plume in order to perpetrate slander or make defamatory comments, then yes, you are abusing it. But aside from that, I can't see why pseudonymous bloggers would be a problem. Ultimately, I agree with @14. Very probably NatGeo wants to bring the offerings on this site in line with their brand & target audience, and the policy on pseudonyms is part of a broader range of changes they plan to make.

By Mutant Dragon (not verified) on 25 Aug 2011 #permalink

Stalking, identity theft, physical threats, employer concerns, and simple freedom of speech are adequate reasons for blogging pseudonymously (especially when blog posts are available to an audience of millions, not the tiny slice a journal goes to). NG is no doubt planning to fashion their own blog network, but if they didn't want certain bloggers included they could've just not renewed their contracts, rather than fashion a stooopid rule that makes them look archaic. Yo, NG, it's not the 1950s anymore....

I'm not a blogger. But, I post on a variety of threads generally under my real name. I've only had one problem with this on a personal level, however, regarding pseudonyms, in my opinion they are good for two things: 1) protecting your job. 2) As a means to bully folks who actually use their real name. Having said all of that, I also generally post with my picture, and in one instance actually had an angry gentleman call my home to find out if that was where I lived. Creepy and to add to it, because he was using a pseudonym and I wasn't, he knew who I was, but I couldn't know who he was.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 26 Aug 2011 #permalink

Over twenty years ago I provided crucial testimony in court, that helped put a violent stalker behind bars. Along the way I learned far more about the creepy and terrifying world of stalking than I ever wanted to know. The guy I helped put away had a history that included planting bombs: in the car of one woman, on the porch of another, causing major injuries to a woman's father in one instance. What we got him convicted for in the case I was on, was illegal wiretap: he literally sat in the bushes next to one woman's house, listening via a telephone technician's test handset, to find out where another woman (his primary target) had moved in order to avoid him.

After the case concluded, I had to move house and, with the help of a court order, confidentialize my physical address, so the violent stalker wouldn't be able to find me once he got out of prison. So far that effort has been a success, and it has been utterly liberating: I've felt free to help catch a few other baddies since then, safe in the knowledge that they will never ever be able to penetrate my security routines and find me.

In my professional role as a PBX engineer (think "telephone system programmer"), I've also spent much time studying various issues related to security, including identity theft. As it turns out, all an identity thief needs in order to steal your identity is your name and your date of birth: and then your life becomes hell.

So far, Shecky R is correct on his/her first three items: stalking, identity theft, and physical threats (the latter being a subset of stalking).

What about your employer? Are we still truly a free society if people censor themselves because their bosses can fire them arbitrarily for expressing an opinion in the public square? Hell no. The privacy of the ballot box is irrelevant if you can be rendered homeless and hungry for campaigning for the candidate for whom you intend to vote, or for campaigning for the issues that are in play in the election. The privacy of the ballot box becomes irrelevant at the point where the campaign is subject to that kind of censorship.

I was also one of the early pioneers of what I called "cryptography for the masses." The system that became the standard wasn't mine but one developed by some friends, that you may know as PGP or its variant GPG. In our discussions of crypto we emphasized this point: the right to freedom of speech is directly dependent upon the right to choose not only what you communicate but also with whom you communicate. Pseudonymity is another facet of the same problem: the willingness to speak freely very often depends on the ability to do so without fear of retaliation.

So Shecky R. is batting 1000.

And now we come to the core of the matter:

These rules about "real names" had their effective start with Facebook and then spread to Google+. Both of those are entities that have earned their enormous fortunes by compiling and selling vast quantities of information about the individuals who use their services. A few years ago at an advertising conference, one of the folks there said that his goal was to know everything about every person who used his company's products. Think about that for a moment.

Two of the goals often mentioned in relation to science are the ability to "predict and control" the phenomena being studied. Predict, and control. When advertisers or anyone else, know "all about you," that's what's going on: it's all about predicting and controlling the behaviors of individuals. Knowledge is power: when *they* know all about *you,* and *you* know little or nothing about *them,* who has the power? And who is powerless?

Finally we come to that phrase "real names." What's a "real" name as opposed to an "unreal" or "fake" name? A name is a noun that specifies one individual out of a group of otherwise alike individuals, for the specific purposes of that individual in relation to that group. Your spouse or partner, your child or children, your friends, your family members: none of them call you by the full name that appears on your driver's license. "Honey," "Mom," and various abbreviated or altered forms of your first name or last name e.g. "Bobby" or "Smithie" or whatever, don't appear on your yearly tax filings.

For purposes of hanging out at the pub or sharing thoughts online, I don't need to know if, for example, "Joey-O" is known to the state Department of Motor Vehicles as "Joseph R. Ordona Jr." (much less that he just got a ticket last month for an illegal turn at an intersection). All I need to know is that Joey-O is my friend who has interesting ideas that we share when we're communicating either in meatspace or in cyberspace or wherever (shared lucid dreams, anyone?:-). If Joey-O and I ever fell in love, we'd have good reason (and arguably a right) to know each others' status with regard to HIV and other communicable diseases ("Oh, you're just getting over salmonella? No thanks, not tonight, maybe in two weeks!":-).

But here's the piece of history that makes the "real names" game as clear as day:

Go back a couple hundred years.

That black family that was just herded onto the slave ship in chains.

What are their "real" names?

Are their "real" names the names they lived by during their life in the tribe in Africa?

Or are their "real" names the new names given to them by those pale-skinned guys with the fire-sticks who freely beat them on the way up the gangplank to their new life as "property"?

And who gets to choose?

Who gets to choose which name is your name?

And if YOU don't get to choose, what does that make YOU?

The Simon Wessley and CFS example is, well, a bit amiss.

First of all, AFAIK there were no death threats, "only" people writing angry emails. This is hugely blown out of proportion, both by Dr. Wessely and the media. The assertion that Dr. Wessely feels safer in Iraq or Afghanistan shows either how distorted the perception of reality by Dr. Wessley is or that he uses he is engaged in a PR campaign.

Secondly, these "death threats" are used by Dr. Wessley used to slander all ME/CFS patients, to show how psychological unstable they are - that is the only thing he can do, psychopathogize people.

And thirdly and most importantly, it was he who drove researchers out of the field of ME/CFS. Researchers that were researching the etiology of ME/CFS. Crazy stuff like viruses and neurologic involvement. I know, it is crazy to think that an illness with measurable pain and fatigue (see the gene-expression work of Alan Light for reference) has an organic cause. So anybody who gets angry about this must have a mental illness and anybody who writes angry emails must be slandered as writing "death threats".

After seeing such fine researchers like our Dr. Wessely (and his following in the "school medicine"), one can understand why half of people with ME/CFS turn away from school medicine. (See the work of Dr. David Bell for reference. Like I summarized here: http://parakoch.blogspot.com/2011/06/david-bell-lecture-25-year-follow-… ) And I can fully understand all the doctors that think: "Ah, there is that patient with that mental illness again, who has the illusion he has an organic illness. Why does he have to bother me? Why can't he leave me alone?" It is wrong, but I know where it comes from: From researchers like our fine Dr. Wessely.

(Sorry to be ravin about this %$§#)

A journalist's job is to write for the public; a scientist's, honestly, is not

This is true, sadly, but it shouldn't be true.

Tara, this is a fantastic article. Thank you so much. I always find it hard to defend myself when it comes to my 'nym, and I think the information you provided will help a lot.

I'm always worried that something I write (i.e., about pseudoscience purveyors, or more editorial stuff) will offend the wrong person and make me lose my job or otherwise get me in a lot of trouble. So thanks a lot.

I'm a bit confused. Pseudonymous bloggers want to be able to freely write about and critique the work of other scientists by name but, at the same time, not have to reveal their own. Sounds like special pleading to me.

Re Tyler D @ #12

Since Ed Brayton and PZ Myers always blogged under their true names, I'm not sure that the anonymity ukase by National Geographic applies.


By LEE AKINS (not verified) on 19 Oct 2011 #permalink

IMHO, pseudonym is important since not everyone like every topics. When someone read the article that they dislike, they subconsciously dislike the writer a little, even they don't intend to.

Using real name when you publish a research paper is good to your reputation, since no one will dislike you with that. Blogging, however, need a pseudonym if you don't want the limitation in the topic. Some topic is so sensitive that you don't want your relatives attack you with it.

As anyone can see, the use of pseudonyms by Charles Liddell, Samuel Clemens, George Kennan, and Pauline Phillips subverted society and undermined civilization.

(for the irony-impaired, that's sarcasm)

Charles, you were thinking of Alice's surname at birth, Liddell -- her full name was Alice Pleasance Liddell, later Alice Pleasance Liddell Hargreaves after she got married.

As for the theme of this blog post, the fact that the author has not posted since this post is, to me, significant. The stalkers are out there, and there's no telling what a person ruled by rage will do.