20 March 2016
Over the past decade, science blogs have risen to become an important part of science communication and scientific debate. Social media posts, such as tweets, form part of this ecosystem. Many scientists now blog and tweet, and most do so under their own names. But not all of them – some scientists use pseudonyms.
I am a pseudonymous neuroscience blogger myself. My day job is as a neuroscientist, and I write research papers under my own name, but I have also been writing as “Neuroskeptic” for over seven years (my blog). A few people know the link between my two identities, but most don’t. I’m often asked why I choose not to use my real name: isn’t it a lot of trouble to maintain a pseudonym? What advantages does it bring, if any?
In this post I’ll discuss my own perspective on these issues and also hear from a number of well-known pseudonymous voices: “Neurocritic”, “Dr Primestein”, and “Neurobonkers”.
What these three (and me) have in common is that we write under an alternative identity. This is distinct from anonymous posting, in which the authors have no identity at all. On anonymous science forums such as PubPeer and PolSciRumors, for instance, it’s not possible to track someone’s posting history (at least not outside of each particular thread). Whereas a pseudonym is a persona, or maybe even a person, that persists over time.
Why do science bloggers use pseudonyms?
One of the pioneers of pseudonymous science writing – in fact, to my knowledge, the first such blogger – was The Neurocritic, who recently passed the milestone of 10 pseudonymous years. I asked him/her why he/she decided to use a pseudonym:
Neurocritic: I chose to blog under a pseudonym for exactly the same reason that reviewers of papers and grants are anonymous: it gives you the ability to provide an honest critique without fear of retaliation. If peer review ever becomes completely open and transparent, then I’d have no need for a pseudonym any more.
In an ideal world, reviewers should be identified and held accountable for what they write.
Then shoddy reviews and nasty comments would (presumably) become less common. We’ve all seen anonymous reviews that are incredibly insulting, mean, and unprofessional. So it’s hypocritical to say that bloggers are cowardly for hiding under pseudonyms, while staunchly upholding the institution of anonymous peer review.
In other words, some bloggers desire pseudonymity for the same reason that peer reviewers (often) don’t sign their reviews. Not linking your comments to your real identity prevents, so to speak, a conflict of interest arising between the need to provide an honest assessment and the desire not to be seen as criticizing people (especially friends and colleagues.)
A rather different style of pseudonymous writing comes from Dr Primestein, aka Dorian J. Primestein.
Dr. Primestein is a satirical pseudonym whose site, psi-chology.com, features various products themed around controversial topics in psychology, especially social priming. Dr Primestein’s creations include the “Anti-Priming Tinfoil Hat” and the “Ego Depletion Energy Drink”.
I asked Dr Primestein why ‘he’ does it and why a pseudonym is necessary:
Dr Primestein: The aim of psi-chology.com is to raise awareness of various potential concerns, such as theoretical gaps, terminological ambiguity, insufficient methodology, rhetorical acrimony, or any combination thereof, in the field of psychology.
Dr. Primestein gives me the freedom to write about anything. My colleagues, even some of my personal friends, are doing research in the (sub-)fields that inspire Dr. Primestein’s products. I don’t want the criticism expressed on psi-chology.com, although they might even agree with some of it, to put a strain on our relationship.
The blogger Neurobonkers cited many of the same reasons for pseudonymity. Neurobonkers however put rather more emphasis on the legal issues involved:
Neurobonkers: The pseudonym allowed me to find my voice and to really be myself: to write bad jokes, cover controversial topics and write about misdeeds of researchers and journalists without worrying about harming my career.
When I started the blog I was very much aware of the massive risks posed by writing about bad science from within the UK. Historically, British libel law placed the burden of proof on the accused, rather than the accuser… I closely followed the case of Simon Singh who lost hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal costs, defending his claim that chiropractic is “bogus” against a libel suit brought by The British Chiropractic Association, even though he eventually won the case! Writing pseudonymously on a website anonymously registered in the US provided me with the valuable protection of the First Amendment.
Coming out into the open?
Neurobonkers recently dropped his pseudonymity. Last year, he revealed that his real name is Simon Oxenham, although he still blogs and tweets under the Neurobonkers username. What led him to make this change, after nearly five years of pseudonymity?
Neurobonkers: As I found myself publishing beyond my own blog, and moving towards a career in science journalism, I found myself being asked more and more to write under my real name. I wanted to broaden my horizons (in terms of the places that would publish my journalistic work) and yet I also wanted to share this work with the audience I had built up with my pseudonym.
I was given the confidence to abandon my pseudonym by the passing of the UK’s 2013 Defamation Act which, while still being woefully inadequate, at least introduced a “public interest defence” against the charge of libel, which I believe applies to my work. Yet the specific turning point for me was my cover story for The Psychologist in March 2015 (co-authored with Jon Sutton.) I was very happy to see this piece in print, and I wanted to share it with my regular Neurobonkers readers as something that I wrote.
Has dropping the mask led to many changes in his blogging life? No, he says, not much has changed:
Neurobonkers: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how uneventful my “coming out” has been. While I haven’t found any real change in how people respond to the blog, I’ve found that it’s made it somewhat easier for me to reach out to sources, as I don’t have to first explain why I use a pseudonym to people who aren’t familiar with my work.
On the other hand, Neurocritic is still pseudonymous after all these years. I asked him/her whether he/she has ever been tempted to “come out”:
Neurocritic: I have. In fact I almost did: a couple years ago, a major blogging network considered hiring me and wanted me to blog under my own name. After pondering the idea, I agreed. But the opportunity never materialized.
If I were to drop the pseudonym, it might be good (and bad) for my career as a neuroscientist. It could lead to new collaborations and other opportunities (speaking, teaching, employment). I could be a role model? (or a cautionary tale) And it would be a big relief – blogging has been an important part of my life for 10 years.
On the other hand, though, there are negative possibilities. My employer may disapprove of blogging. It might have a negative impact on my career, collaborators, and colleagues in neuroscience (although this may be vastly overstating general interest in the matter – and my own importance). And in a sense, I’m afraid of being judged. But overall, it’s likely that less would happen than I currently imagine.
The importance of pseudonyms
So what would happen if pseudonyms were banished from scientific discourse? If science and science blogs adopted a real name policy, like Facebook, would that be a bad thing? Neurocritic’s thoughts:
Neurocritic: In an ideal world, anonymity in science would not be necessary. The entire scientific enterprise would benefit immensely if researchers were less competitive, more cooperative and collaborative. But the realities of limited funding and huge egos make this unlikely… also, online harassment is a major issue for women and people of color, so the right to free expression without fear would be lost if everyone had to use their real name all the time. I’m reminded of how Facebook’s real name policy had devastating consequences for some in the transgender community.
Back to Neuroskeptic: I agree with this. While many anonymous and pseudonymous comments are low quality, harassing or otherwise undesirable, I do not think that this is an argument for requiring a real name policy. After all, as well as the fact that peer reviewers are (partly) anonymous, many scientists have published influential papers under pseudonyms over the years, and a great many cases of scientific misconduct have been exposed following anonymous tip-offs. On PubPeer, one can see this happening every day.
So in my view, science would lose much if we were to suppress pseudonymity and anonymity – not that this would be technically feasible, in any event. Certainly, not all anonymous and pseudonymous comments are valuable. Yet the value of each must be judged on its own individual merits. As these three examples show, pseudonymity is often a conscious and rational choice made by scientists to allow them to speak their minds freely about important issues.
Neuroskeptic is a U.K. neuroscientist who takes a skeptical view of his profession. As a Contributing Editor to The PLOS BLOGS Network and PLOS Neuro Community, Neuroskeptic does in-depth interviews with fellow scientists on neuroscience and issues in scientific communication . The regular Neuroskeptic blog at Discover Magazine is here.
[Featured image above by David Goehring]
The views expressed in this post belong solely to its author and are not necessarily shared by PLOS.