On anonymity in science and on Twitter

A lot of people who I interact with on Twitter, and whose blogs I read, have chosen to tweet and write under pseudonyms. This puzzled me at first, but I have come to realize that there are a LOT of good reasons for people to mask their real identities online.

Anonymity allows people to express their opinions and relate their experiences without everything they say becoming part of their personal permanent record. It affords people who are marginalized or in tenuous positions a way to exist online without fear of retribution. Pseudonyms help create a world where ideas matter more than credentials. And they provide some kind of buffer between people – especially women – and the nastier sides of the internet.

The myriad and diverse pseudonymous voices out there make the internet a richer and more interesting place. Maybe it’s weird, but I consider many of these people whom I’ve never met and whose real identities I don’t know to be my friends.

So I was really pissed off yesterday when I heard that a pseudonymous blogger named Dr. Isis was “outed” – you can read her account of what happened, and her response, here. This would have been bad if the outing had come from an anonymous tipster. But it didn’t. It came from Henry Gee, a senior editor at the journal Nature.

Gee and Dr. Isis have apparently had issues in the past. I don’t know the full history, but I was witness to some of it after Gee published a misogynistic short story in Nature several years back. Gee behaved like an asshole back then, and apparently he has not stopped.

Think about what happened here. A senior figure at arguably the most important journal in science took it upon himself to reveal the name of a young, female, Latina scientist with whom he has fought and whom he clearly does not like. This is not a casual event. It was a deliberate attack, clearly meant to silence someone whose online existence Gee wanted to squash. If you don’t believe me, read this exchange:


Apparently Gee felt aggrieved by comments from Dr. Isis, who he claimed was using the veil of anonymity to slander him.

Having myself come under fairly withering criticism from Dr. Isis, I feel somewhat qualified to speak to this. She has a sharp tongue. She speaks with righteous indignation. I don’t always think she’s being fair. And, to be honest, her words hurt. But you know what? She was also right. I have learned a lot from my interactions with Dr. Isis – albeit sometimes painfully. I reflected on what she had to say – and why she was saying it. I am a better person for it. I have to admit that her confrontational style is effective.

And thinking back on this now in light of Gee’s actions, there was an aspect to it I hadn’t appreciated before. In the heat of the moment I found Dr. Isis’s anonymity incredibly frustrating. It felt somehow unfair. Here I was – me under my real name – being publicly taken to task by a phantom. It was unnerving. It was disarming. It made it more difficult to fight back. And of course, I now realize, that is the whole fucking point!

If our conflicts had existed in the “real world” where I’m a reasonably well known, male tenured UC Berkeley professor and HHMI Investigator and she’s a young, female, Latina woman at the beginning of her research career, the deck is stacked against her. Whatever the forum, odds are I’m going to come out ahead, not because I’m right, but because that’s just the way this world works. And I think we can all agree that this is a very bad thing. This kind of power imbalance is toxic and distorting. It infuses every interaction. The worst part of it is obvious – it serves to keep people who start down, down. But it also gives people on the other side the false sense that they are right. It prevents them from learning and growing.

But when my interlocutor is anonymous, the balance of power shifts. Not completely. But it does shift. And it was enough, I think, to fundamentally change the way the conversations ended. And that was a good thing. I know I’m not going to convince many people that they should embrace this feeling of discomfort – this loss of power. But I hope, at least, people can appreciate why some amongst us feel so strongly about protecting this tool in their arsenal, and why what Gee did is more fundamental and reprehensible than the settling of a grudge.

You would think, of all people, that someone in Gee’s position would get this. After all, he is an editor at a science journal. He thus works in a profession that is built, to a large part, on the notion that providing the veil of anonymity to peer reviewers is the best way to ensure that they give honest feedback on papers. I think there are many problems with the way peer review is currently carried out, but it is definitely true that junior scientists feel far more comfortable speaking their mind about papers – often critiquing their more senior colleagues – when their comments are anonymous.  Sound familiar?

[Addendum] Several people have pointed out, very correctly, that anonymity actually often doesn’t work in peer review. I wasn’t trying to endorse the way peer review is done, rather to point out that Gee is a hypocrite for embracing anonymity in one context and not another despite the fact that they exist for the same reason. However, it is worth pointing out that there is a crucial – and I think instructive – difference between anonymity in peer review and the pseudonyms we’re talking about on Twitter, which is that Dr. Isis and most of the other pseudos active on blogs and Twitter have put considerable time and energy into crafting an online identity, and thus they have a lot invested in this identity and, with very few exceptions, act responsibly, presumably because they want their pseudonym to be respected and taken seriously, just like people who use their real names do. Of course this is different in peer review – where each review is a separate event – where there are essentially no consequences of behaving poorly (except, perhaps, in the eyes of the editor). I think it’s no accident that the worst interactions I’ve had with people on Twitter have been either with low traffic accounts that seem to have been created solely for the purpose of harassment. It’s something to think about as we try to figure out better ways to handle peer review.

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