Against Anonymity

There’s been quite a lot of reaction on the interwebs about a recent decision by the Huffington Post to block anonymous comments in an attempt to prevent abusive behaviour, which is a serious problem on many websites. Many argue that this won’t stop trolls from trolling, which is of course true. What it might do is make some people think twice before they post a comment. It might also allow appropriate (possibly legal) action to follow up more extreme examples.

My own feelings about this are quite complicated actually. I don’t really care about randomly abusive comments from anonymous lowlife. I’ve learned to ignore such things, except when the abuse appears that it might come from, say, someone in your workplace. Some time ago something like that happened to me and I found it so distressing to think that a colleague or student might be behind it. That’s even worse than when somebody does such things brazenly under their own identity.

The Huffington Post’s policy is just one illustration of a wide issue,, namely to what extent one has a right to anonymity. I’m not at all sure what the law says on this or what it should say, in fact, especially when it comes to the internet.

In Britain we don’t have identity cards (not yet anyway), so there’s a sort of de facto right to anonymity there. However, with the increasing levels of surveillance and state intrusion into people’s lives, that is changing. The  issue generated by the Huffington Post, however, is how the right to anonymity extends into the blogosphere (or the internet generally) rather than how it applies in other spheres of life.

Some blogs I know are anonymous but I happen also to know who writes them. I presume the authors have reasons for wishing to conceal their identities so I wouldn’t dream of revealing them myself. However, these are all sites run by reasonably civilised people and it’s very unlikely that any of them would use their anonymity to engage in abusive or defamatory activities. If one of them did, I wouldn’t have any qualms at all about exposing their identity, but I’m not sure whether that would be a legally acceptable course of action.

But anonymity still makes me a  bit uncomfortable. In academic life we come across it in the context of refereeing grant applications and papers submitted to journals for consideration. Usually the default is for referees to remain anonymous is such situations. Most referees are fairly conscientious and if they have criticisms they are usually presented politely and constructively. There are, however, some exceptions. Fortunately these are few and far between, but there are some individuals who take the opportunity provided by anonymity to be downright abusive. Us old hands have sufficiently thick skins to brush such attacks off, but vitriolic comments made on papers written by inexperienced scientists (perhaps even research students) are completely out of order. This probably wouldn’t happen if referees didn’t have the right to remain anonymous. On the other hand, having your identity known might make it difficult for some  to write critically of, say, the work of more senior scientists. Perhaps the answer is to retain anonymity but for the journal editor, for instance, to monitor the reports produced by referees and reprimand any who transgress.

Going back to the subject of blogs, provides me with an opportunity to describe some of the behind-the-scenes issues with running this blog. In the beginning I decided to have an open comment policy so that anyone and everyone could comment without any form of intervention. That turned out to be a disaster because of the number of automatically generated  SPAM comments that clogged up the boxes. I therefore switched on a SPAM filter so it could veto obvious garbage, but otherwise kept an open policy. The alternatives offered by WordPress include one that requires all comments to be from people registered at the site (which I thought would probably be a deterrent to people only wanting to comment on the odd post). Another option is to maintain a blacklist which treats all messages from persons on the list as SPAM. It’s also possible to block all comments entirely, of course, but I enjoy reading most of them so I think it would be a shame to do that just because of a few breaches of netiquette.

All went fairly well and I only had to ban a couple of individuals for abuse. I did for a time receive a stream of crudely abusive comments (of a personal nature) from various anonymous sources. These were mostly depressingly puerile and they didn’t affect me much but I did find it very disconcerting to think that there are people sitting out there with nothing better to do.

Since WordPress notifies me every time a  comment is posted, it is quite easy to remove this junk but I found it very tiresome (when there were several per day) and eventually decided to change my policy and automatically block comments from all anonymous sources. Since this requires a manual check into whether the identity information given with the comment is bona fide, comments from people who haven’t commented on this blog before may take a little while to get approved.

There are still comments on here which may appear to a reader anonymous (or with a pseudonym) on here, but these are from people who have identified themselves to me with a proper email address or who the software has identified through their IP address or information revealed by their web browser (which is probably more than you think…). I’m happy for people to comment without requiring they release their name to the world, and will do my best to ensure their confidentiality, but I’m not happy to publish comments from people whose identity I don’t know.

If you’re interested, as of today approximately 17500 comments have been published on this blog. The number rejected as SPAM or abuse is about 350,000 (many of them from a Mrs Trellis of North Wales). That means that only about one comment in twenty is accepted.

Am I denying freedom of speech by rejecting anonymous comments? I don’t think so. If you want freedom of speech that much, you can write your own blog (anonymous or otherwise). And if every sight of this blog makes you want to write abusive comments, perhaps you should exercise your freedom not to read it.

I’d be interested to know from any fellow bloggers if they have the same problems with abusive comments. If not, perhaps I should start taking it personally!

More generally, I will not accept anonymous comments on the subject of the anonymity of comments, but any other contributions are welcome via the box.

Unless you’re banned.

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14 Responses to “Against Anonymity”

  1. I wonder about the distinction between “abuse” and robust criticism. Some people are too easily offended and inclined to demand an apology if they feel slighted. Most real abuse is obvious and unacceptable of course, but I’m not talking about that. To a young researcher for example, robust criticism from a respected authority might well be a confidence-shattering experience and they may feel slighted. How do you find the right balance ? [ I'm not an academic but used to be a school teacher, and currently maintain computers in an academic Uni department. ]

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, that’s a serious issue and it’s why I’m very nervous when the law gets involved, which is too often in my opinion. Threats of violence, rape or behaviour amounting to harrassment should attract the attention of the law, but most abuse, though offensive, should not be a matter for the criminal courts.

      As far as this blog is concerned, I’m not trying to make rules, I just make my own mind up in each case. I have banned some comments not for abuse but because they were off-topic too – especially when it’s the umpteenth comment about some crackpot theory.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        The way you run your blog seems very sensible to me.

        Can I make an off-topic comment about it raining at the Oval thereby virtually ensuring a 3-0 England victory in the Ashes?

      • telescoper Says:

        No.

      • telescoper Says:

        Apparently play has been abandoned for the day. That means Australia will have to take 16 wickets tomorrow to win, which is unlikely even if there’s a full day’s play (which is also unlikely).

  2. Dipak Munshi Says:

    I completely agree with your comment about referee’s report. Like everyone else, I too have had my share of good and bad reports. Sometime the referees actually make constructive comments which helps to improve the paper. On the other hand there are referees who are simply not capable of understanding the content of the paper. All referee reports should be published with the paper along with the name of the referee. Otherwise journals should try to find a way to send the paper to referees without
    author details. Which probably is not practical.

    • telescoper Says:

      You’ll soon find there’s a journal that carries out at least a few of these suggestions..

    • I agree wholeheartedly with the recommendation about publishing the referees’ reports alongside the paper. If that’s a policy that Peter’s Open Journal is going to implement, I look forward to reading them!

      Incidentally, I also agree with the comment about some referees not engaging with arguments and being obstructive (not to say rude) in their reports – in my own personal experience I found this to be more common with papers submitted with a graduate student listed as the corresponding author, and less so when a senior name nominally (though not in practice) handles the communications.

      But as several people have gently reminded me, this is an impression based on a small sample size, so possibly best not to read too much into it.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I had the editor of one academic journal actually apologise to me for the tone of the referee’s report. This was in the field of science-and-religion, and that (well known) referee was identified to me. My paper was an advocacy of hidden variables underlying quantum mechanics as being in the tradition of scientific progress that emerged in Western Europe from some of the tenets of Judaeo-Christianity; and, correspondingly, Copenhagenite doubt as being a divergence from that tradition. As the referee was a Christian, a scientist and Copenhagenite in his interpretation of quantum mechanics, my paper never stood a chance at that journal.

    I don’t think that referees should have to be made public, but I do think it would be reasonable to inform the author of a paper of the referee’s general school of thought.

    Anonymity in blogging may bring abuse, but it is invaluable in exposing tyrannies at all levels.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, if there’s one example where anonymity is justified, it’s blowing the whistle about wrongdoing where there’s a real risk of retribution.

  4. Albert Zijlstra Says:

    Referee reports should not be made public. They refer to an earlier version of the paper than the one which is published, and so in a way they make themselves irrelevant. Only comments referring to the final version of a paper are publishable.

    I might accept an addendum from the editor listing remaining disagreements but even that should be done with care. If the referee wants to have his/her say in the literature, that should be published separately by the referee, be subject to prior scrutiny and should not be under the banner of the offending author.

    • Dipak Munshi Says:

      Early versions of papers are often available in arXive and
      journals can simply link to them. Most journals also have their
      own electronic data base where large data sets/table etc. used in various papers are often reproduced. It’s very easy to publish the referee’s report in such an electronic database and not in paper version of the journals. This will improve the entire process and referees too will get their due credit and careless referees will take the entire process seriously. Authors should
      ofcourse have the choice if they don’t want to make the report public. Secrecy always leads to nepotism.

  5. Having used several forums where all the people know each other in real life I have seen that lack of anonymity does not stop the abusive comments – some people just don’t care what others think of their behaviour!

  6. Let me weigh in.

    Anonymity on blogs? Up to the maintainer of the blog. Personally, I think Peter runs his blog well.

    Anonymous referees? There are arguments for and against, but on the whole I am in favour of anonymity. There are too many opportunities for retribution, most of which won’t even be recognized as such. We don’t want someone without a permanent job writing a critical report then have his next application thwarted by the offended senior astronomer. Neither do we want senior astronomers to be able to expect a good report even if their paper doesn’t warrant it.

    Yes, some referee reports are way off base. However, it is the job of the editor to sort this out. If he doesn’t, people should publish elsewhere.

    If a referee report is obviously wrong, it should be easy enough to get a couple of colleagues to read the paper and the report and, if they agree, write to the editor and ask that he send it to another referee.

    Should referee reports be published? I don’t think so. There is enough literature to read as it is. The deciding thing is the final version of the paper.

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