The problems with authors being anonymous may not be what you think.
My friend and collaborator, the late Steve Wright, worked to expose and challenge repression technology. For many years, he regularly visited “security fairs” where merchants tout wares for controlling populations such as electroshock batons, guillotines, acoustic weapons and surveillance equipment. They sell technology for torture and social control to governments of all stripes, including known human rights violators.
Steve would talk with merchants, collect sales brochures and covertly take photos. Back home in Britain, he passed information and photos to human rights groups such as Amnesty International. In addition to articles and reports using his own name, he sometimes used the pseudonym Robin Ballantyne. For Steve, a degree of anonymity was vital, especially when visiting security fairs in repressive countries such as Turkey and China.
I thought of Steve’s experiences when, a couple of years ago, I read about the new Journal of Controversial Ideas that explicitly allows authors to use pseudonyms. This is to enable authors of contentious articles to avoid reprisals by colleagues and others. How sensible, I thought.
Then I read comments hostile to the journal’s policy on anonymity. Helen Trinca, associate editor of The Australian and long-time editor of its higher education supplement, penned an article titled “As ideas go, hiding behind an alias is as false as they come.” She lauded Peter Singer, co-editor of the new journal, for bravely proposing his own challenging ideas. She said, though, that he wouldn’t have had such an impact if he had used a pseudonym: “the likelihood that a fresh and different idea will actually spark a conversation is reduced when it’s put forward by someone who cannot be seen, who is not known, and who has no profile to Google or CV to check.”
Philosopher Patrick Stokes, in an article in The Conversation, presented the pros and cons of anonymous authorship. In conclusion, he asked,
“Are you, in the end, making life better for other people, or worse? In light of that standard, a pseudonymous journal devoted entirely to ‘controversial’ ideas starts to look less like a way to protect researchers from cancel culture, and more like a safe-house for ideas that couldn’t withstand moral scrutiny the first time around.”
I’m not so sure about this.
Over the past several decades, I’ve spoken to hundreds of whistleblowers. They come from all walks of life, including the public service, private companies, schools, the police, the military and churches. They report a potential problem, usually to their superiors, and frequently end up suffering reprisals. In the worst cases, their careers are destroyed.
What happens, time and again, is that managers and bosses don’t like the message and target the messenger. Therefore, for many years, I have recommended blowing the whistle anonymously whenever possible. The value of anonymity is that the focus is more on the disclosure rather than the person who made it. In the huge volume of commentary about whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, there is often more attention to them as individuals than to what they spoke out about.
The same considerations apply to scholars. They can be subject to adverse actions due to speaking out on sensitive issues. I’ve talked to several Australian academics who raised concerns about “soft marking,” in particular the lowering of standards when grading international students. This is a touchy topic because it smacks of racism and because it is threatening to universities’ income. I don’t know whether any of the claims about soft marking could be substantiated, but every one of these academics encountered problems in their careers as a result of raising concerns.
In 1990 I began corresponding with Louis Pascal, a writer based in New York City. He had published a couple of articles in well-respected philosophy journals. He had come up with an idea: that AIDS may have entered humans via contaminated polio vaccines given in the late 1950s to hundreds of thousands of people in central Africa. This idea was highly threatening to the medical research mainstream. Who would want to acknowledge that a vaccination campaign might have inadvertently led to a new disease in humans costing tens of millions of lives? Pascal met great resistance in getting his papers about AIDS published. That is another story.
The key point here is that “Louis Pascal” was, almost certainly, a pseudonym. I never met him nor spoke to him. He used a private address that may have been a mail drop. After a huge flurry of correspondence with me and others, by the mid 1990s he vanished, at least so far as his Pascal identity was concerned. Many have speculated that “Louis Pascal” was, in public, a different person, who wanted to keep his writings about population and AIDS separate from his public identity.
There can be other reasons for anonymity. Bourbaki is the name of a group of mathematicians. By using a pseudonym for the group, they renounced acknowledgement for their contributions.
This can be for an altruistic reason. Normally, researchers build their reputations and careers through being known, especially through publications. The mixing of two motivations — contributing to knowledge and advancing in a career — leads to a number of dysfunctions such as sloppy and premature publication. The members of Bourbaki, by remaining anonymous, more purely adhered to the scholarly ideal of seeking knowledge, without the contamination of career motives.
Rather than getting worried about a few scholars writing articles under pseudonyms, there are much bigger problems with anonymous authorship, ones that deserve far greater attention.
Many contributors to social media are anonymous. Many are polite and constructive, but quite a few are nasty and threatening. Individuals who are prominent or outspoken are vulnerable to abuse online, and women and minorities are prime targets. Researcher Emma Jane, at the University of NSW, has documented the horrific abuse to which women are subjected.
Closer to the academic scene, reviewers of scholarly papers are commonly anonymous. The rationale is that reviewers, if they could be identified, might be less than candid. But there’s a negative consequence: some reviewers sabotage submissions by rivals or authors whose opinions they dislike. By remaining anonymous, they aren’t accountable. This is a longstanding problem that has received little attention. If it is important that authors take responsibility for their contributions, why should the authors of reviews of scholarly manuscripts not have to take responsibility for their reports?
In many fields, especially scientific ones, supervisors and senior figures add their names to publications to which they made little or no intellectual contribution. PhD students, postdocs and junior scientists in large labs are especially vulnerable to this type of exploitation. It should be called plagiarism: credit is inappropriately claimed for the work of others. This practice of unwarranted authorship is widespread, yet it is often considered just the way things are done, and there has been remarkably little public concern expressed about it.
This form of misrepresentation reaches greater heights in medical research. Pharmaceutical companies carry out research and write papers and then, to give the findings greater credibility, identify university professors who agree to be the nominal authors of the papers, even though they were not involved in the research, have no access to the primary data and did not write the papers to which they append their names. Meanwhile, the actual researchers may or may not be listed as co-authors. Some of them remain anonymous. Many papers produced in this fraudulent fashion are published in the most prestigious medical journals. The sponsoring companies then print thousands of copies and use the publication to tout their drugs.
A ghostwriter, sometimes called a ghost, does some or all of the writing while someone else is listed as the author. Ghostwriting is common in autobiographies of prominent individuals such as politicians, sports stars and celebrities. Sometimes the ghost is listed as a co-author; other times the ghost remains entirely anonymous. Ghostwriting is also standard for the speeches and articles of politicians. Anonymous authors contributed to many famous speeches, for example President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military-industrial complex.
It is reasonable to have concerns about authors being anonymous, but whether anonymity is beneficial or damaging depends quite a bit on the circumstances. I am sympathetic to the view that an author should reveal their identity when possible. However, the biggest abuses and misrepresentations associated with anonymity — social media harassment, exploitation of subordinates and ghostwriting — seem to receive the least attention.
I submitted a paper to the Journal of Controversial Ideas. It received two rounds of rigorous refereeing before publication. I didn’t choose to be anonymous but, if my experience is typical, the journal seems far from being, in the words of Patrick Stokes, “a safe-house for ideas that couldn’t withstand moral scrutiny the first time around.”