Publishing Anonymously

I just came across an interesting NYT’s article, that talks about two scientists publishing an article using “fake names”. I find this very interesting, because I have often thought of doing this myself.

Here are some arguments for why people should publish using their own names:

  1. People know who you are, or if they don’t, then they know that you are a relative newcomer in the field.  They take you at your word. Your reputation enhances your credibility.
  2. It is more honest to put your own name down, since you are staking your reputation on the research.

The article basically points out these things.

Here are some arguments for why people should use fake names:

  1. People know who you are, or if they don’t, then then know that you are a relative newcomer in the field. This shouldn’t matter one bit when publishing a paper. The science should stand on its own.  If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter who the author is.  If it does stand on its own, then it doesn’t matter who the author is.
  2. If the article is using real data, or real models, and legitimate analysis methods, it shouldn’t matter who writes it.  If an article is incorrect, it should be caught in the review process, or the community should prove that it is not correct. Why does it matter whose name is attached?
  3. Who cares whether an anonymous name gets “credit” or “blame” for good or bad science.  The science is what matters.

In many ways, your name is a double-edged sword when publishing.  If the people who read the text like you a lot, then they may give you a pass for sloppy work.  If they don’t like you, then they may be overly critical.  If you publish a lot of papers, it probably ends up being a wash, unless you are extremely popular or extremely unpopular.

Part of the problem with the publishing community is that it is a single-blind system where the reviewers are anonymous, and can say anything that they want about the paper with almost no consequence at all.  So, if they give a horribly biased review, it doesn’t matter (unless the editor steps in) one way or the other.  If the paper is accepted even if it is garbage, or rejected even if it is great, no one really ever knows.  Or if it is accepted, but the reviewers make the authors jump through a bunch or crazy hoops, no one will ever know.

There are two obvious solutions to this:

  1. Make the reviews double blind, so no one knows who the author is and no one knows who the reviewer is, until the paper is published.
  2. Make the reviews publicly available.  The reviewers don’t have to be known, but the reviews should be completely out in the open (along with any submitted versions of the paper).

Ideally, both would take place – everything should be anonymous until the publication comes out, and then just about everything would be public.  If everyone knew that their reviews could be read by anyone in the community, they would probably be a lot more civil and a lot more helpful. And people might write better papers too.  Perhaps I am too optimistic on both fronts.  But, people tend to behave a lot better in public.

I, personally, have had a lot of really great reviewers (thanks everyone!!!), but I have also had some pretty horrible reviewers (like – I should be banned from publishing because of the assumptions that I have made! Seriously!)  I have expressed massive support for publishing anonymously.  I have also expressed support for publishing everything on a blog or some other place where people can get access to the ideas early.  I am not a main-stream scientist.

So, it will probably come to no surprise that in that article, I think that the NYT got the villain completely wrong here – it is not the authors that published their paper in a journal using “fake names”, it is the reviewers and editors that let it pass if it was indeed garbage science.  But, it seems like, it wasn’t (really) garbage science (partially). It was about climate and didn’t agree with main stream climate science.  This is perfectly fine.  The article argues that it could completely explain climate change in a totally different way, which I doubt.  But, I don’t see the problem with allowing publications of data that question the beliefs of main-stream scientists, myself included, especially if it is a new an innovative way of looking at the data.  The thing that really rubbed me wrong was that some other scientist (who didn’t review the paper) said the study “is just a curve-fitting exercise of five data points using four free parameters and as many functional forms as they could think of …” Ok.  That is fine to have that opinion, and it may indeed be true. What does this have to do with the names of the authors?  Nothing.  If the study sucks so badly, write a comment on the article and be done with it. I have also written a few comments on papers just like this (here is one).  They call that “Science”.



About aaronridley

Professor at the University of Michigan, Department of Climate and Space Science and Engineering.
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