Total loss department – Incident management solutions (Or: The “Isis-Gee Incident”)

Yesterday, I posted a letter for my husband containing paperwork for the insurance claim connected to someone rear-ending his new (used) car, totally destroying it and leaving it a write-off. The address above struck me as funny: “total loss” and “incident management solutions” seem to be at two opposite ends of a spectrum: one very negative with no hope of recovery, the other rather optimistic (euphemistic?) and forward-looking.

Writing and communicating under a pseudonym conveys power. This should be obvious: after all, the reason for using a pseudonym is usually to empower those who previously were/felt powerless to have their voice heard without repercussions and/or prejudice. It is important and necessary for this to be possible. Henry should not have outed a pseudonymous blogger, because those who need a pseudonym to freely communicate must have the reassurance that they will be able to do so.

What seems to be less obvious to many is that with that power comes responsibility.

In many ways, someone blogging under their real name (or even openly with their professional affiliation) may be more vulnerable than someone blogging/tweeting under a pseudonym. (Just search for the number of people who have called for Henry to resign from nature/be fired.) In the past I have myself consciously decided to blog under my real name about some things that have affected me in my professional life because I felt that I could make a bigger difference that way. This may or may not have hurt me; I think the jury is still out. Doing this was not an easy decision as I was scared of repercussions.

In the current discussion, people are persistently confounding “Henry as a person” with Nature Publishing Group, extrapolating from what Henry did to the organisation as a whole and vice versa. Of course, Henry has not helped this by referring to his employer in his recent altercation with Isis – but the fact remains that he tweeted in a private capacity and not as “Henry Gee, Senior Editor at Nature”.

While it is very important that the real-life name of a pseudonymous blogger/tweeter is not revealed, it is also important for those of us interacting online under our real names that our own opinions and actions and those of our employers, and even our actions online in a personal capacity and those in our professional life, are not confounded. (I say this as someone who for some years got her paycheck from a company that also makes long-range missiles and other things that kill people rather too effectively. I had absolutely nothing to do with those activities.).

Of course, for many reasons (ethics, our own mental health, among others), what we do in a professional capacity should not contradict what we say online as ordinary people, and vice versa. In some jobs this is even more important than in others – the more high-profile the job, the more online interactions are watched as well. There have been several examples of this in the last few weeks even.

To get back to the current situation: as high-profile of a position Henry holds at Nature in the eyes of many of you whose careers depend at least to some degree on publishing there, Henry IS not Nature Publishing Group. And when he says that he would never compromise the anonymity of a reviewer in his professional capacity, I believe him without reservations. Henry the Editor does not equal Henry the non-fiction book author does not equal Henry the guy from down the street in Cromer.

To me, the saddest thing about the “Isis/Gee story” (how ironic is it that their names will be forever linked online?) is that there is (was?) potential for a real discussion that may have to be had concerning power dynamics and how we treat each other online. As it is, there may be more potential for the current flame war to discredit the online science/science communication community, such as it is, even further following last year’s events. I worry that the situation is almost a Total Loss. Maybe we can still make sure that the paperwork at least goes to Incident Management Solutions so we can be more productive next time?

Finally, to get back to that power thing. Those of you who use pseudonyms: please think about the power you hold and wield it carefully.

Thank you.

(I apologise in advance for not linking to relevant blog posts/tweets here – my eight-month old is sitting next to me, demanding attention. If you are up for it, help me out in the comments. I also apologise should I be slow in responding to any comments, we have guests this afternoon who will arrive shortly and I may have to sneak to the bathroom to get a moment to do it.)

(Re-reading this post I wonder whether it sounds like a “NPG is great” statement, which it is not. But I’ve run out of time and think I’ve kind of managed to make my points…?)

About steffi suhr

Once upon a time, I was an enthusiastic and hopeful biological oceanographer who did a bunch of work in the Antarctic. I was alternately wearing labcoats or extreme weather clothing and hard hats, but have long since swapped survival suits for dress suits and do science management, currently as the BioMedBridges project manager at the European Bioinformatics Institute. I still like to use my brain. I'm a German serial expat, currently - again - living in the UK.
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4 Responses to Total loss department – Incident management solutions (Or: The “Isis-Gee Incident”)

  1. To me, your points and opinions appear pretty clear.

    I think that across the board, participants in “online science/science communication community, such as it is” profess to dislike manifestations of hypocrisy. And of course, we’re not really more immune to it than any other group of humans.

    I also have made ample use of a pseudonym in my checkered blogging past. After a while, I decided to assume the courage of my convictions, and that the risk of so doing was something I could tolerate. Of course that decision is personal, and of course I would have been upset had someone else decided to do their research and “out” me at the time, before I was ready to do so myself. (Actually, I still haven’t really made any explicit claim to the posts I made under my former pseudonym.)

    Nonetheless, I can’t get that worked up about the protection afforded by pseudonymity. It’s no protection at all. Even Dr. Isis admitted that it wasn’t particularly hard to figure out who she was, for anyone who cared to do so. She assumed the risk that someone would do so, in particular someone who had a reason to care enough to bother. If she hands out lots of reasons for free, by purposefully cultivating ill-will, then that’s really a case of what goes around, comes around.

    Life is full of risks.

  2. Thank you for writing this. This entire incident is a case study on how not to use social media.

    At the very least, it seem obvious to me that groundless speculation that Henry Gee was behind a – shall we say – unpopular editorial decision, constitutes a personal attack. The fact that it was done so from behind a cloak of anonymity makes Dr. Isis a troll, in my book.

    To me the saddest thing about all of this is that the underrepresentation of women in science is both very real and very complex. As a scientist and a husband to a scientist I see it every day, I care about it and I have opinions about what should be done, just as any human being would.

    But I don’t find this community and it’s seeming thirst for blood to be to be a sufficiently safe place for me to be part of the discussion. For my part, a lot of folks got dropped from my twitter and RSS feeds on Friday (I know, I know, Dr. Isis is quaking in her boots).

  3. Mike says:

    +1 for a thoughtful post. +1 more for doing so under the constant pressure of tiny, wandering fingers.

  4. rpg says:

    Casey, I did the same. Even people I considered friends.

    But I made some new friends, as well!

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