Since my writings on the Hauser controversy several weeks ago, I have watched the scandal unfold with some interest. This is not least because the post I wrote was subjected to some fairly vicious attacks, both in the comments section and in comments on other blogs. I was accused of ‘gossip-mongering’ and ‘idle speculation,’ among other, less savory activities. On one blog, it was even suggested that I had anonymously commented on my own post as a supposed ‘insider’ to lend credence to my story. (For the record : come on!)
Given the potential fall-out for researchers associated with Hauser, I can understand why tempers might be running hot. However, one of the things that has interested me throughout the process, is that all of the nastiest comments I’ve received have been anonymous. Certainly, there have been self-identified researchers who politely disagreed with me or pressed me to justify or clarify certain statements. Yet, for the most part, hostility arose from the nameless. Anonymity, it would seem, empowered commentors to lash out against me in a way that I expect they never would in ‘real life’ [1, 2].
This is hardly a new observation. Ever since the dawn of the Internet age, people have lost themselves behind the mask of anonymity, in sexy chatrooms and idle online pranking, in sartorial forums and fanfiction nets. Anonymity strips away some of the moral imperatives and ‘civilizing’ impulses that might normally restrain us, since we no longer run the risk of being caught or brought to task. And like a drug, it looses us of our inhibitions and embarrassments – sometimes in good ways, and other times not. In this brave new world, we can maintain something of a dichotomy between our public personas, which we present to the world; our private personas, which we present to our closest circle of friends and family; and our ‘anonymous’ personas, which can take on any number of different guises .
In a very important sense, there is an aspect of ‘civility’ that can be lost in anonymity. Our social and culture mores about what one does and doesn’t say can be all too blithely ignored; writing or commenting, we can forget what is kind, what is respectful, and what is warranted. We write fearlessly because there is no retribution worth fearing. But we also write recklessly, for the same reason.
Certainly, there is a time and a place for anonymity . But there are certain spheres where it has no place. One is a court of law. We can easily imagine how strange it would be if witnesses could give testimony ‘anonymously,’ and the content of their character and their actual relation to the case went unexamined by the jury. The pursuit of justice, we might protest, could far too easily fall prey to the dishonest or vengeful.
Another place where anonymity is harmful is in peer review. The review process demands a form of testimony and expert evaluation that should be understood in personal and contextual terms, but usually isn’t. Instead, the content of reviews is often taken at face value by editors, as if something ‘objective’ has thereby been communicated .
Given the workings of the editorial and review process, this stance is a practically-motivated form of insanity. Editors at many psych journals encounter serious difficulty in finding available reviewers, and can run into even greater problems when trying to secure an appropriate cross-section of research angles and competencies for a given article. (–Which is another way of saying that it is next to impossible to establish a ‘fair’ sample, in which the reviewers are not too strongly biased for or against the work, but have all the various expertises needed to review it.) This means that the reviewers that are chosen for any particular article are a rough approximation of the ideal selection, if not fairly wide of the mark.
Allowing for anonymity in review suggests that either this problem does not exist (but it does) or that editors can somehow work around it (but most can’t or don’t). It is my own view that anonymous review has effectively created a publishing environment that runs counter to the goals of science, and that all reviewers should sign their reviews, and that all reviews of accepted articles should be made available online following publication, as was originally done at PLoS ONE. This would allow for a great deal more transparency in the process and would give the scientific community at large the power to serve as a check on that process. But this is admittedly an extreme view, and I want to begin with a much milder proposition:
That the priviledge of being anonymous in the review process should be automatically revoked post-tenure.
Anonymity in review is put in place – at least in theory – to shield young, untenured professors from the vindictiveness of their more senior colleagues. By design, then, it is meant to correct for the imbalances in a political power structure. The problem is that when tenured professors are allowed to submit unsigned reviews, the inverse difficulty can arise. Using their stature as a blank check, senior academics can be as abusive as they like in review, both because their anonymity protects them, and because their seniority entitles them. If a pet theory is threatened by a younger scientist, they can use their influence to check or block that work coming out, particularly in high status, broad readership journals.
This is anathema to the pursuit of progress, and ensures that there is a great degree of continuity in published research at the expense of change; a diversity of ideas; and real breakthrough. It also means that cognitive science will necessarily continue in something like Kuhnian cycles, with upstart researchers having to effect a revolution in thought before their science can reach a broad audience. This continuity-bent is only compounded by the way the tenure process works at American universities, in which researchers are supposed to spend seven years publishing as much uncontroversial work as they possibly can, before giving voice to their ‘real’ theories once they’ve achieved job security. (If you’re told to be a conformist from day one, why will you be any less of a conformist at day 2555?)
Of course, the entire process is designed to protect young scientists from the politiking of older scientists. But in fact, the structure breeds a highly politicized climate, in which – ‘protections’ in place – researchers feel free to be as machiavellian as they dare. In such a clime, personal charisma and unchecked ruthlessness can serve as ciphers for good science, particularly among the elite.
Why believe me?
In an earlier post, I wrote about how the actions of an unscrupulous editor can severely undermine the review process. In the coming days, I will outline some reasons for thinking that in a politicized climate, the reviewers can be just as dangerous as the editors. Still, I leave room for cautious optimism: indeed, I think that the danger posed by both parties might be checked if only our reviewers were at last stripped of their anonymity.
 If you follow this blog and prefer to comment anonymously, please feel free! I fully expect that many commenters will choose to remain anonymous, and respect that decision. Internet commenting is one place where anonymity is not only warranted, but at times, can be the most appropriate choice.
 This post is not about enforcing ‘civility’ in blogs or other similar domains; I’m more than happy to let people have their say here within certain, minimalist bounds. To be fair, however, I think the argument that is often made against civility (‘white male patriarchy’ etc) can fast become paternalistic. On its face, it seems to suggest that minorities and women will somehow be excluded from blogging communities if agreed-upon norms of behavior are enforced. While I write extensively about how environment influences learning and behavior, I also operate under the closet-existentialist assumption that I have a measure of freedom in my choices, even within certain constraints. For this reason, I find myself cringing at arguments like this, since they appear to imply that women and other minorities aren’t able to express themselves without resorting to anger, ad hominem attacks and other dirty tactics.
On the other hand, several writers have made the case that enforcing ‘civility’ online can quickly become fascist, particularly given that many of the most emotional or dissident writers are impassioned by their alienation from civil society. If you’re interested in this viewpoint, I highly recommend The Privilege of Politeness and This is The Patriarchy: When Talking to the Master, Speak in a Civil Tone. And of course, there’s also Civility, Science Communication, and the White Patriarchy ; Online civility: between 10,000 cliques and 2 cultures, where's the neutral ground? ; and another linkfest by Bora Civility and/or Politeness at ScienceOnline2010. Thanks to my co-blogger Jason, for alerting me to this debate.
 Of course, given the rise of online social networking, the split between public and private is collapsing – which may leave our least socially-constructed selves to the domain of anonymity.
 Wikipedia proves an interesting testcase because it can be edited by anyone, but is often moderated by no one. For wikis, anonymity is a servicable (if not necessarily ideal) solution, in which popular opinion – or the sustained work of a particularly tenacious editor – will determine content over time.
While many academics agree that Wikipedia is not necessarily an accurate source of news or information, the site’s traffic reports would suggest that people are reading it in droves anyway. According to Alexa Traffic Rank, Wikipedia is one of the top ten most visited sites online. Given, there are over 3 million articles in English alone which might, in part, be driving this ranking. But at the same time, it’s abundantly clear that people are using Wikis as both repositories and sources of knowledge, and at least on some pages, contributors spend the time to fact check and source the information they provide. The entry for ‘Scientology,’ for example, has over 267 references; ‘Michael Jackson’ has 320.
Given the earnestness of some editors, it can be quite riveting to watch Wiki pages on controversial topics as they evolve over time. Take the recent wiki wars on the Marc Hauser page (first reported by @vaughnbell), which has seen a drastic rise in edits since the scandal broke. Much of the debate appears to center on the question of whether anonymous sources and second-hand reports – which have been reported by credible news agencies – should be taken seriously, or marked as ‘alleged’ or ‘unconfirmed.’ While the registered editors have done some back and forth on how best to frame the allegations, an anonymous IP out of Boston has been furiously deleting new content, and adding words like ‘alleged’ and ‘unconfirmed’ to the proceedings. Could it be Hauser himself? Or just another diligent and concerned citizen? Regardless, it’s fascinating to watch how editors of various interests and biases work together – and sometimes against each other – to manage and vet the information that will be read by the general public.
 This is not always true; there are (rare) cases where an editor will stand up to a group of incompetent reviewers. But this is not the prescribed role of the editor, and many editors seem hesitant to take it on.