Being heavily involved these past few weeks in reviewing piles of grants, I have been thinking a lot about the power that anonymity can confer. And how it can, when there are no checks and balances (or in the case of misuse by a person lacking in moral standards) be abused as a power base.
Despite these concerns, first as a reviewer and now as a chair and reviewer for a certain funding agency, I do believe that overall the system works. The fact that there may not be sufficient funds available to support many outstanding projects and the necessity of choosing between “outstanding,” “better than outstanding,” and “almost outstanding” does resonate in my nightmares, but unfortunately we are all in the same boat. And I hope it isn’t sinking.
So how does this process succeed despite the cloak of anonymity? Why is power generally NOT abused? First, I like to think that most scientists and reviewers are fair-minded people who can easily imagine the situation reversed with their own grants on the line. That’s probably sufficient for most instances. But in addition, there are other “checks and balances.”
For example, as chair, I assign a proposal to 3 reviewers. Not only are these reviewers anonymous to the researcher who submitted the proposal (although the list of all the reviewers on the committee is made public knowledge), but the identity of reviewers remains unknown to each reviewer until the actual meeting. So the net effect is that each reviewer wants to appear knowledgeable, reasonable, fair, and consistent to his or her peers on the review group. I perceive that this desire to do a good job and be recognized by one’s peers is a major positive influence in the review process. It is similar for manuscripts reviewed, although in the latter case recognition comes primarily from the journal editors. The reason for this is that journals don’t disclose to a reviewer the identity of the other reviewers, although they do share the comments made.
Thinking about anonymity and the responsibility that comes with it, I couldn’t help thinking about the internet and the growing problem of cyber-bullying. My 13 year old daughter recently had her first paid acting gig for a play called “The Secret Life of Girls” and was interviewed in this article.
This play deals with cyber-bullying, and the conditions that allow this type of bullying to prevail in a teen-age environment.
But teen-agers are not the only ones who bully or suffer from bullies on the internet. The ability to hide one’s true identity and post vile and vulgar comments seems to be rampant, and not unknown in the realm of science bloggers. For one who believes that pretty much anything I write about can and should be read to to my spouse and 13 + 10 year old children, I am appalled at the language and–well–abuse that I see spewing from some bloggers. All in the name of some lofty ideal (gender equality, racial equality, and so on)–yet the impact is to turn away supporters from these ideals. After all, if this blogger is a “supporter,” why would I want to have any part of that? I often feel fortunate that I don’t usually have time to read the blogosphere more widely, as I am not anxious to come across more of such distasteful behavior.
Let me be clear: I do understand the need for anonymity in certain circumstances. However, along with anonymity there comes an extra burden of responsibility. People who hide behind anonymity for the sole purpose of bashing others, stirring up controversy and wielding power are misusing their anonymous stature. Not only is this cowardly, but it’s immoral.
And they should probably think carefully before doing so. After all, in the age of wikileaks and wikianswers, anonymity is hard to keep. Just ask “Who is X?” online and it is easy to unmask the identity of many such anonymous bullies.