Accountable Anonymity

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.

SLOG poster

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.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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10 Responses to Accountable Anonymity

  1. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    “Just ask “Who is X?” online and it is easy to unmask the identity

    This worked for “Who is Steve Caplan”, but not for “Who is rpg”.

    I’m Facebook friends with my cousin’s teenage kids and some of my pre-teen / teenage nephews. Their statuses and interactions with their friends are often very… interesting. Having had a hard enough time with high school bullies without the cyber component, I can’t tell you how glad I am that I got through the system before the Facebook era

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Of course I’m famous compared to RPG (!), but this is beside the point. The reason is that both RPG and I and the rest of us OT bloggers are ‘transparent’ in that we do not hide behind pseudonyms. So if I abuse RPG or poke fun at him as I just did, he knows who is doing this.

    On the other hand, certain other science bloggers are taking advantage of an anonymous stature to promote online bullying. Yes, their anonymity can be important for their job security and other reasons, but in retaining that anonymity, they shoulder a responsibility to be fair. And from what I have come across, this is not the case.

    So, this is merely to bring it to their attention that anonymity is not necessarily eternal, and sometimes may be breached. In today’s internet culture, asking Wiki-answers “Who is Dr. XXXX” can be very revealing.

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Oh, I know – I’ve been attacked by a pseudonymous blogger a couple of times myself, the first time being when I protested at the bullying of another blogger. If I can face it, I’ll dig out the links for you some time – it dates from a few years before you “hit the scene” 🙂 The best part was how many blog friends – pseudonymous and real name bloggers/commenters alike, a few I’ve met in real life but most of whom I’d never met – stepped up to support me; a few publicly, and many, many people in more private venues. The solidarity almost made the whole thing seem worth it.

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Forgot to add: a few friends expressed concern that the main instigator involved would “come after me” by contacting my boss and trying to get me fired, or something like that. I thought that was ridiculous – a) is my boss going to even bother reading an email signed by [silly psuedonym]? Probably not; b) if he did read it, would he just roll his eyes before deleting it? Almost certainly; c) if the person used their real name instead of their pseudonym, would I have been forwarded a copy of the email and promptly posted it on my blog? Definitely.

    However, other bloggers, as you know, have not been so lucky… there HAVE been online movements to try and get them fired. Which is RIDICULOUS. Hopefully the whole “who is” thing will prevent them from going too far, though, as you mentioned.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    Stalked by a pseudonymous blogger, eh? That’s pretty bizarre! My only claim to fame in that arena is the semi-mysterious and typed note I found in my mailbox at work in a university-envelope that said 3 words: “GO TO HELL”

    I know with almost 100% certainty the identity of the individual in question, and I hope to be able to blog about this little event at some future date. For now, though, I cannot say anything further.

    But yes, anonymous blogging seems to be an outlet for certain people who otherwise would not be able to wield power over others. Even scientists.

    • Oh dear. Don’t know what to say here, as my pseudonymous blog, even in its current dormant state, gets at least ten times the number of readers my OT one does..!

      However…. it is a sensible maxim of internet activity that you are never TRULY anonymous, unless you go to quite serious lengths to remain so. I certainly know the real identities of several anonymous bloggers whose work I read regularly. I also know the real identities of my two most persistent pseudonymous blog-trolls. So the line between “RealName” and “Anonymous” is not as clear-cut as one might think, at least for people who are online regularly and use the same ‘alias’.

  6. Steve Caplan says:


    I have NO qualms with anonymous blogs. There are distinct advantages with being anonymOus which can very helpful for the blogger and his/her readers. Just as fair criticism can be leveled by anonymous grant and manuscript reviewers, so can bloggers dispatch wisdom and critiques. My concerns are with several well known pseudonymous bloggers who are clearly hiding behind their anonymity to taunt and haunt and cyber bully others. This is an entirely different story.

    As for your anonymous success, well what can I say? You have a popular spleen…

    • Yes, agreed that using internet anonymity to bully and harrass people is contemptible. And also makes you think the people doing it must be rather unpleasant to know in real life.

      Of course, using anonymity and pseudonymity to cyber-bully people makes you, not just a bully, but a hypocrite as well.

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