Anonymity In Science – New Neuroskeptic Paper

By Neuroskeptic | April 8, 2013 7:18 am

Six months ago, I proudly announced Blogging’s First Academic Paper. That was when Perspectives in Psychological Science became the first scientific journal to publish an article under a blogging pseudonym (an adaptation of this post).

But while the blogging bit was new, many scientists have published work anonymously or pseudonymously before… as I explain in my second ‘Neuroskeptic’ paper, which is out now.

It’s called Anonymity in science in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Here’s the abstract:

The history of science is replete with important works that were originally published without the author’s legal name being revealed. Most modern scientists will have worked anonymously in their capacity as peer reviewers. But why is anonymity so popular? And is it a valid approach? I argue that pseudonymity and anonymity, although not appropriate for all forms of scientific communication, have a vital role to play in academic discourse. They can facilitate the free expression of interpretations and ideas, and can help to ensure that suggestions and criticisms are evaluated dispassionately, regardless of their source.

I don’t think I’m allowed to post the whole text here, unfortunately. UPDATE: But you can read it free for the next two months, here.

ResearchBlogging.orgNeuroskeptic (2013). Anonymity in Science Trends in Cognitive Sciences DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2013.03.004

CATEGORIZED UNDER: blogging, papers, science, select, Top Posts
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  • psycritic

    I think your article is quite timely. The General Medical Council in Britain has recently issued guidelines saying that doctors who identify themselves as such on social media should not post anonymously. Although this is not exactly the same thing as an academic writing anonymously, I believe the same logic applies.

  • Garritt VS

    Pseudonimity and anonymity might be acceptable in some circumstances, but the circumstances should be tightly controlled. Pseudonymous and anonymous are popular for two reasons: Allowing the powerless to question the powerful or allowing one to maintain “distance” (deniability) from a distasteful or unpopular topic while still allowing comment on it.

    I think it should work the same in academia as it does on the internet: The moderator of the forum (in this case a publication) should be furnished with both the poster’s real and pseudonymous name to validate the credentials of the submitter. There should be a reason for the request. If the request is valid and the conclusions of the article are worth publishing, the moderator (or committee) can grant the request. There should be just one person who evaluates the request for anonymity, whether it is a committee approving the article or not.

    There is a valid reason to question the credentials of a physicist publishing a chemistry paper; less of a reason to question a request for anonymity from a chemist requesting the same. But the physicist might have a valid reason to request anonymity and the chemist might not when writing articles about the same chemistry subject.

    • JonFrum

      But why should credentials matter? The paper contains the science, not the credentials. if a paper is written properly, it should contain enough information to make an informed judgement on its quality. If not, credentials don’t fill in the blanks.

      • Neuroskeptic

        Right. The credentials don’t matter, and neither does the motive for being anonymous – in the case of a pure work of interpretation.

    • Neuroskeptic

      If I were in charge of a publication then I’d probably adopt that system – but only to protect my own reputation from the possibility that the author is e.g. a well-known crank.

      If a well-known crank writes a sensible anonymous piece, then that’s fine and their arguments should be taken into consideration. Their history is irrelevant.

      However as an editor, I probably wouldn’t want to be associated with it.

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  • storkchen

    The argument for anonimity is to allow the ‘weak’ and vulnerable to present their arguments without repercussions. The argument against it is that it will also protect the powerful from being exposed when they are unfair or biased while protecting their own epistemic investment. They can basically say what they want, without being exposed or held accountable for what they say. My suspicion is that at the moment, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. A good compromise would be to not allow people with tenure to be anonymous.

    • Neuroskeptic

      But suppose a powerful person adopts anonymity – hey presto they are no longer powerful, they are just an Anonymous, alongside all the others. Now, their influence depends on what they say, not who they are.

      Anonymity is the great leveller. Which is why powerful people never seem to use it (except in those silly cases where authors give their own books 5* on Amazon!)

      • storkchen

        I respectfully disagree with a number of points. Powerful people can (and do) use anonimity to avoid losing their power. Take reviewers who want to void publication of an adversarial theory, without being accountable for their unfair arguments. Or imagine, just hypothetically, a successful neuroscientists at a top university, who want to be critical of his field, but not give up the fame & fortune he accumulated in neuroscience. By being anonimous, he can have his cake and eat it. But it would be much better for the field if he “came out” openly. Other point: suppose I don’t agree with an anonymous person, and argue against him forcefully. Then I don’t even know who I am potentially pissing off. For all I know, he might be a reviewer or on my tenure board and I would not even know. For the record, I think anonymity is often justified, but only it if it clear what the justification is. In the case of Knuth submitting his own work, or with a Mafia informant, it is clear and justified. In other cases, including your case, I don’t know what the motivation is, hence cannot evaluate whether it is, in my view, legitimate.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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