We are anonymous. We are legion. We are (mostly) harmful.

This revelation appeared in my Twitter timeline earlier this week:

On the same day, Nature News published a fascinating interview with Brandon Stell, the founder of PubPeer who has revealed his identity to the world:

I’ve waxed lyrical about PubPeer a number of times before, going so far as to say that its post-publication peer review (PPPR) ethos has to be the future of scientific publishing. (I now also try to include mention of PubPeer in every conference presentation/seminar I give). I’ll be gutted if PPPR of the type pioneered by PubPeer does not become de rigueur for the next generation of scientists; our conventional peer review system is, from so many perspectives, archaic and outdated. I agree entirely with Stell’s comments in that interview for Nature News:

Post-publication peer review has the potential to completely change the way that science is conducted. I think PubPeer could help us to move towards an ideal scenario where we can immediately disseminate our findings and set up a different way of evaluating significant research than the current system.

But one major bone of contention that I’ve always had with PubPeer’s approach, and that has been the subject of a couple of amicable ‘tweet-spats’ with the @PubPeer Twitter feed, is the issue of anonymity. I was disappointed that not only was it just Stell who revealed his identity — his two PubPeer co-founders remain anonymous — but that there are plans (or at least aspirations) to “shore up”, as Stell puts it, the anonymity of PubPeer commenters.

I am not a fan of internet anonymity. At all. I understand entirely the arguments regularly made by PubPeer (and many others) in favour of anonymous commenting. In particular, I am intensely aware of the major power imbalance that exists between, for example, a 1st year PhD student commenting on a paper at PubPeer and the world-leading, award-winning, scientifically decorated and oh-so-prestigious scientist whose group carried out the work that is being critiqued/attacked. Similarly, and in common with Peter Coles, I personally know bloggers who write important, challenging, and influential posts while remaining anonymous.

I also fully realise that there are are extreme cases when it might not only be career-theatening, but life-threatening for a blogger to reveal their identity. However, those are exactly that: extreme cases. It’s statistically rather improbable that all of those pseudonymously venting their spleen under articles at, say, The Guardian, Telegraph, or, forgive me, Daily Mail website are writing in fear of their life. (Although, and as this wonderful Twitter account highlights so well, many Daily Mail readers certainly feel as if their entire culture, identity, and belief system are under constant attack from the ranked hordes of migrants/PC lefties/benefit claimants/gypsies/BBC executives [delete as appropriate] swamping the country).

I am firmly of the opinion that the advantages of anonymity are far outweighed by the difficulties associated with fostering an online culture where comments and critique — and, at worst, vicious abuse — are posted under cover of a pseudonym. For one thing, there’s the strong possibility of sockpuppets being exploited to distort debate. Julian Stirling, an alumnus of the Nanoscience Group here at Nottingham and now a research fellow at NIST, has described the irritations and frustrations of the sockpuppetry we’ve experienced as part of our critique of a series of papers spanning a decade’s worth of research. In the later stages of this tussle, the line separating sockpuppetry from outright identity theft was crossed. You might suggest, like PubPeer, that this type of behaviour is not the norm. Perhaps. But our experience shows just how bad it can get.

Even in the absence of sockpuppetry, I’ve got to come clean and admit that I’m really not entirely comfortable with communicating with someone online who is not willing to reveal their identity. I’ve been trying to get to grips with just what it is about anonymous/ pseudonymous comments that rankles with me so much, having been involved in quite a number of online ‘debates’ where the vast majority of those commenting have used pseudonyms. When challenged on the use of a pseudonym, and asked for some information about their background, the response is generally aggressively defensive. Their standard rebuttal is to ask why I should care about who they are because isn’t it the strength of the argument, not the identity of the person making the comments, that really matters?

In principle, yes. But the online world is often not very principled.

Ultimately, I think that my deep irritation with pseudonyms stems from two key factors. The first of these is the fundamental lack of fairness due to the ‘asymmetry’ in communication. Dorothy Bishop wrote a characteristically considered, thoughtful, and thought-provoking piece on this issue of communication asymmetry a number of years back (in the context of the debate regarding the burqa ban). The asymmetry that’s established via anonymous commenting means that those who are critiquing an author’s (or a group’s) work are free to comment with impunity; they can say whatever they like in the clear knowledge that there’s a negligible chance of their comments ever being traced back to them.

Stell and his PubPeer co-founders claim that this is actually a key advantage of anonymity — those who comment are not constrained by concerns that they’ll be identified. But if their arguments are sound, and expressed in a polite, if critical, manner, then why the heck should they be concerned?  After all, it’s long been the case that “old school” journals — the APS’ Physical Review family of titles being a notable example — publish critiques of papers that have previously appeared in their pages. Those formal critiques are published with the names of the authors listed for all the world, or at least the readership of the journal, to see.

We should aim to change the culture so that critiquing other scientists’ work is seen as part-and-parcel of the scientific process, i.e. something for which researchers, at any career level, should be proud to take credit. Instead, the ease of commenting online from behind cover of a pseudonym or avatar is encouraging a secretive, and, let’s be honest, a rather grubby, approach to scientific criticism. I was therefore particularly encouraged by this announcement from The Winnower yesterday. It’s a fantastic idea to publish reviews of papers from journal club discussions and it’ll help to move the critique of published science to a rather more open, and thus much healthier, place.

The second, although closely related, aspect of anonymity that winds me up is that it essentially (further) depersonalises online communication. This helps to normalise a culture in which those commenting don’t ever take responsibility for what they say, or, in the worst cases — if we consider online communication in a broader context than just the scientific community — fail to appreciate just how hurtful their abuse might be. I’ve often seen comments along the lines of “It’s all just pixels on a screen. They should toughen up”. These comments are invariably made by those hiding behind a pseudonym.

As ever, xkcd has the perfect riposte…

This splendid poem also makes the point rather well. “Cuts and bruises now have healed, it’s words that I remember.

Anonymity contributes to a basic lack of online respect and too often can represent a lack of intellectual courage. When we criticise, critique, lambaste, or vilify others online let’s have the courage of our convictions and put our name to our comments.