Am I An Unethical Pseudonym?

By Neuroskeptic | November 10, 2016 3:09 pm

I’ve blogged about my fair share of scientific papers over the years, but this is a new one: a paper about me.

neuroskeptic

Writing in Science and Engineering Ethics, author Jaime A. Teixeira da Silva discusses the question of Are Pseudonyms Ethical in (Science) Publishing? Neuroskeptic as a Case Study

Teixeira da Silva, a plant scientist and frequent poster on PubPeer amongst other forums, opens with the following:

There is a prominent blogger called Neuroskeptic who has a web-site and even a gmail account at which he (or she) can be contacted. Neuroskeptic is not only a critic of papers primarily related to neuroscience and psychiatry, but is also apparently a prominent and frequent commentator at PubPeer and Retraction Watch, two leading watchdogs and controversial (in some circles anti-science) blogs. One expects a fair amount of liberty and freedom of speech within the context of blogs, but when ideas are biased or highly opinionated, then one needs to question the validity and purpose of the use of pseudonyms and pseudonymous identities, such as Neuroskeptic.

No examples of my “biased” ideas are given, but I’ll admit to being opiniated at times. However, I don’t think this is relevant to my pseudonymity. As I always say in this context, readers can judge for themselves whether what I say makes sense. If I’m right, I’m right and if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. Who I am doesn’t matter, or at least it shouldn’t matter.

Teixeira da Silva continues:

Recent retractions in science have shown that false identities, and even hoaxes and stings that use papers signed by individuals with false identities or affiliations, are not an acceptable or ethical practice in science publishing because they corrode trust and undermine the inherent qualities of honesty that are meant to underlie science publishing (Al-Khatib and Teixeira da Silva 2016).

But ‘Neuroskeptic’ is not a false identity (even if ‘pseudonym’ literally means ‘false name’). In calling myself ‘Neuroskeptic’, I’m not trying to fool anyone into believing that this is really my name. ‘Neuroskeptic’ is transparently a nom de plume. Now, as Teixeira da Silva notes, sometimes in science people do write papers under real-sounding names that turn out to be fake, and this has led to retractions (e.g.), but this has little to do with me.

sci_eng_ethics

Teixeira da Silva seems to be especially concerned with my two papers which I’ve published as ‘Neuroskeptic’. Of my 2012 “9 Circles of Scientific Hell” paper published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, for instance, he says that as it was “published using a false or fictitious name… Neuroskeptic cannot be held accountable for the views expressed in this paper”. Similarly, Teixeira da Silva goes on to say that “there is no affiliation defined for this individual, thus further reducing transparency and accountability.”

I don’t think it’s true that I can’t be held accountable. I get paid a monthly sum in proportion to the traffic I bring in on my ‘Neuroskeptic’ blog, and my blog’s success depends in part on ‘Neuroskeptic’s reputation, so if I published something that discredited me, I’d lose out. Also, I’m pretty sure that if I said something that was actually illegal, the authorities would be able to determine my identity pretty easily.

But to be fair to Teixeira da Silva I don’t think he’s complaining that I’m not legally accountable. He is saying that I can’t be held accountable as an academic:

Neuroskeptic can work pseudonymously in the blogosphere, but to offer him/her academic protection using a false identity is an ethical affront to all scientists and authors who publish in academic journals knowing that their identities carry with them great weight of responsibility and accountability.

Yet I don’t see the problem here. While it’s true that most academics only publish under their real names, they could publish anonymously or pseudonymously; I did, and many others have done so before me. Anonymity is not a privilege that I’m jealously guarding for myself; on the contrary I have long argued in favor of anonymous or pseudonymous discourse as a right for everyone.

ResearchBlogging.orgTeixeira da Silva, J. (2016). Are Pseudonyms Ethical in (Science) Publishing? Neuroskeptic as a Case Study Science and Engineering Ethics DOI: 10.1007/s11948-016-9825-7

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  • Nym w/o Qualities

    Oddly enough this is my real name.

  • Trivial Gravitas

    “I get paid a monthly sum in proportion to the traffic I bring in on my
    ‘Neuroskeptic’ blog, and my blog’s success depends in part on
    ‘Neuroskeptic’s reputation”

    Counterpoint: Publishing blatant lies which appeal to people’s biases has been proven to be a fairly successful business model. I’m not accusing you of that or claiming that people who write under their real names are any less prone to it. But I still don’t see accountability.

    On the other hand, its not clear that anybody is really being held accountable for publishing bullshit at all, except for not being part of the appropriate partisan position (which is bad).

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Fair point. I like to think that my readership would abandon me if I turned into a blatant liar… but yes I would get a new readership, as you say, and possibly I would end up with more clicks that way.

      The payment-per-click issue was just one example of how I’m invested in and hence accountable via this blog, though. In less tangible ways, it is a big part of my life and I wouldn’t want to wreck it, even if in wrecking it I got more clicks.

      • Trivial Gravitas

        Another point might be that Discover magazine presumably cares about their rep as well. So you’d both have to decide to go down that route at the same time.

        • Regret

          I presume someone at Discover Magazine knows the real identity of our host, if only so they can pay him, although it’s possible s/he is paid in Bitcoin.

    • OWilson

      A great point, which I completely overlooked!

      Some blogs generate zero traffic, until “the” hot button” issue is raised as a proposition! :)

  • John Smith

    Neuroskeptic: I am happy you have blogged anonymously–it has freed you up to debunk things that other may have feared to mention. You obviously are a brilliant critical thinker, and I thank you for your continued anonymous blogging. It would not be the same without you, and it would not be the same if you were named and targeted by pseudoscientists.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      thanks very much!

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Discover Magazine is often soft truths, a gateway not a scholarly resource. Read the literature, but first find it. Nobody is above factual redress. A unique pseudonym is a fine ID. I have an ORCID number. So what?

    Trump firmly won the 2016 Presidential election by law, the 12th Amendment to the Constitution (15 June 1804), 303 to 235 electoral votes. The congenitally inconsequential riot. I’d rather not be bothered by their physical presence. Imposed self-righteous vicious stupidity is my government’s job – perhaps soon to change.

    (If we’re gonna make changes, pop out the 19th Amendment first, broken fingernails screeching down the national blackboard.)

    • okiejoe

      If you want to get rid of the 19th Amendment you might as well take the next step and get rid of the 13th too.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        The 13 Amendment goes, solving illegals and student loan repayment. It boosts domestic employment for the sudden industrial sales uptick in chromed, titanium nitride ion-plated, and anodized Ti-0.15Pd – Grade 11 neck, wrist, and ankle shackles. “Irons” are so 18th century.

        Three-tiered slavery in service to the retired and the wealthy: taxpayers, slaves, organ donors. Bring back the 3/5ths rule, too, Article I, Section 2, ending street violence.

        • Scott Baker

          Veering from the subject of this blog into political diatribes that can be found just about anywhere dilutes the value of comments on Neuroskeptic. I consider it a major disservice to those who have invested thought and effort into discussing the topic at hand.

  • OWilson

    As long as you are not receiving taxpayer money for your opinions, you are not beholden to anyone to explain, or justify, or qualify your opinions.

    Your ideas, opinions and questions, especially your open discussion forum are supremely educational and will find their value in the free market.

    You are only a threat to government funded dictatorial dogma, which preaches the “received wisdom” of the elite.

    The days when you can be censured for posting controversial questions, have faded with the election of a traditional American, Donald Trump. He does not owe folks like corrupt Harry Reid, a role as public watchdog, which might have been the case if the election outcome were different!

    Like you, I celebrate there is no longer some government agency, a President, or 37 Attorneys- General, that want to “bring me to justice” for whatever they choose to define as “climate denial”.

    A great day for America.

    Thanks for allowing the continued questioning of the status quo,in the free flow of ideas!

    Hey! you censor me often, but I completely understand why! This is a moderated blog and sometimes we get overheated, or even off topic.

    Thanks again!

  • tim faber

    I see some references being made to the use of pseudonyms and the anonymity in the academic review process (e.g., in the link posted at the end of the article). With this in mind, how do you judge the peer reviewers openness initiative? The use of pseudonyms/ real identity both have their merits of course. (posted using my actual name :))

  • CL

    “I get paid a monthly sum in proportion to the traffic I bring in on my ‘Neuroskeptic’ blog”

    Transparency is good, thanks for letting us know.

  • Nacho Sanguinetti

    I haven’t read every blog post you’ve written, so I’m probably not familiar with how much you have disclosed of your scientific career. I agree with you that, whatever you publish as neuroskeptic should scrutinized for its own merits on a first level, just the argument level. However, how can someone evaluate your possible conflict of interests in relation a subject you blog about? For example, If you are still producing scientific papers under your real name and one of them is criticized, could you defend it as Neuroskeptic? Would Neuroskeptic be impartial enough to criticize a paper from an academic competitor of yours? I think that from your readers perspective your pseudonym does isolate your neuroskeptic opinions from a putative academic subjectivity and interest. In principle you could use your popular pseudonym to push for your non disclosed academic interest from a perspective that appears less biased for the reader. It gives you two voices instead of one (I just want to clarify that 1) I don’t believe this is what you are doing 2) I actually dont know what have you exposed or not regarding your academic career).

    More generally. For the pseudonimity and anonymity debate. Are conflicts of interest not important? Ideally we should debate the arguments not who makes them or why they make them. However, science is after all a human endeavour with social, cultural and economic implications.

  • Денис Бурчаков

    This whole paper boils down to: “Hey, let’s blame this guy for the fact, that we have no power over him”. So typical.

  • Abcdef

    Teixeira da Silva contradicts himself the long of his proses:

    -He criticizes the anonymity in Science and Engineering Ethic but he is a fervent defender of anonymity in another post: http://www.plantphysiol.org/content/170/4/1899.long

    -He criticizes “the lack of institutional or contact details” but he puts his contact details as “Miki-cho Japan”!
    Miki-Cho is a medium-size town in Japan of about 30,000 inhabitants!

    -There are many real biases related to prestige, big name, etc. (institutions or big name) that should be removed. One of the most effective ways to remove such biases is to anonymize manuscripts and remove contact details.

    -It is the content of manuscripts that should be evaluated but not the institution or contact details or the author name… Any critics should focus on the content but not on the name.

    -The famous statistical T test (Student or T test) was published under an anonymous name (Student) by his original author William Gosset:

    https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Gosset

    That is, anonymity is not a hindrance of good contributions or useful achievement). It should not matter who is the author (anonymized or not), or the institution (prestigious or not) but it is the content of the manuscript that should matter. In an ideal world, there is no need for anonymity, but in an academic world fraught of wild competitions, biases, and unethical behaviors, anonymity should be the rule for fairer evaluations and integrity.

  • jim birch

    “Neuroskeptic” is, in marketing lingo, a brand. It’s owner is interested in maintaining its reputation. This is rather different to being a random anonymous commentator on someone’s blog or platform.

    I’m not sure what your reasons for using a nom de plume are but I guess they are to separate the blog from your professional identity, to allow a bit more freedom to step on toes, to express your tone and intent through your name, and to stand out a bit more than a conventional name.

    There’s a slight risk to your readers of disinformation and ulterior motives via your anonymity but which but there are equally positives for us in some more freedom to speak fearlessly. And on the entertainment side, to be a little more provocative and irreverent. But the whole whole thing is pretty marginal, does it make that much difference? You are following the rules of civil discourse. In comparison, uncivil anonymity is a real problem.

    If you go over the edge, we go elsewhere. Not much of a case to answer, I’d say.

  • A.M.

    I would take anything said by this “scholar” with a grain of salt. Ht’s been banned from communicating with journals due to abusive and threatening language, and he rants and raves in various comment sections anytime someone disagrees with him! I’m surprised he hasn’t popped in here yet!

    https://retractionwatch.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/elsevier-letter-to-teixeira-da-silva.pdf

  • urstoff

    Some day academics will learn about the ad hominem fallacy. Maybe they should start teaching that in school. But then we’d have to find some academics that know what the ad hominem fallacy is. Welp, I guess we’re stuck.

  • Pingback: Journals pull two papers after blogger shares plagiarism suspicions - Retraction Watch at Retraction Watch()

  • Mark Eccles

    “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Oscar Wilde

  • Marklar

    Color me unconcerned. I have been following this blog long enough to know that there are many comments that criticize your own critiques. To me, this indicates that the blog’s main purpose is to encourage critical discourse in science. We need more of that!

  • blue*comment

    Pay no attention to J. Teixeira da Silva. He is not taken seriously possibly outside of his primary field of horticulture. He has a curious obsession with certain individuals. He can write a nasty note about someone, and then in a later article cite himself for supporting empirical evidence. See below for more details about his “trolling” and ban from submitting articles by at least two major publishing houses. In this era of “Fake News” we need Mr. da Silva like a hole in the head.

    https://retractionwatch.com/2015/09/24/biologist-banned-by-second-publisher/

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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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