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From this MathOverflow question:

William Sealy Gosset published a result under the pseudonym Student. (Because his employer, the Guinness brewing company, did not allow their employees to publish for fear of divulging trade secrets.)

Why isn't publishing under a pseudonym a breach of academic ethics? It seems that the common idea is that publishing under a pseudonym is ethical, unless they are deliberately used with intention to defraud or deceive. But, given that we don't know who a pseudonymous author is, how can his peers have any trust in that (or even check it)?

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Some people think that papers should be reviewed without knowing the name of the authors, so it seems to be the case that you can trust and/or check a paper without knowing who the author is. –  user102 Nov 23 '12 at 13:09
Other people give advice and answer question on Q&A websites under an obvious pseudonym, and yet their point is taken into account (wink) –  user102 Nov 23 '12 at 13:33
I'm not particularly defending double blind reviewing (on the contrary, I'm for as open as possible), but the point is that if a reviewer can trust/check a paper without knowing its author, then so can a reader. In the end, the question remains to know whether the paper is good, and that should be possible to know it only from the paper, regardless of the author name. But yes, it could be deception, in particular w.r.t. the employer (and you could probably use also your real name, that wouldn't change what I think of your posts written as F'x!) –  user102 Nov 23 '12 at 14:47
Ethics aside, there may be policy against pseudonyms regardless of intent. arXiv for example: arxiv.org/abs/1205.5874 arxiv.org/abs/1205.6365 arxiv.org/abs/0712.3934 –  Willie Wong Nov 23 '12 at 16:44
What? Yes, "D. H. J. Polymath" is exactly pseudonymous! The fact that the authors' real identities are known doesn't prevent them from publishing under a pseudonym. –  JeffE Nov 24 '12 at 4:16

2 Answers 2

up vote 15 down vote accepted

The worth of scientific work is in the content, not in who wrote it. Therefore, I think publishing under a pseudonym is not necessarily unethical. In the example the OP presented the author was prevented from publishing if he used his own name. If the research was sound and reproducible, I would be fine with this. In practice I would like to know who wrote the paper.

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But if he was prevented from publishing by his employer/contract, wasn't published pseudonymously unethical? –  F'x Nov 23 '12 at 17:24
@F'x In this case this is certainly illegal in some sense, but it may be ethical more than unethical (the paper is an advancement to the human knowledge, so it may be of high value in term of social utility). –  Sylvain Peyronnet Nov 23 '12 at 20:15
I'd say it is more unethical to give someone a contract that forbids publishing papers, than to actually publish something despite such a contract. There's a difference between unethical and illegal. –  silvado Nov 26 '12 at 8:07

I don't think there's an absolute answer here. Ethical questions generally have lots of "grey areas" associated with them.

I think the biggest question to ask—and the one you indirectly are headed toward—is "why is someone using a pseudonym?" If the answer is "to get around a contractual agreement that both parties have agreed to and accepted," then it's likely that the use of a pseudonym is probably unethical. (Although one could argue that if this were intended to "correct" a more serious problem, then it might still be ethical—even if contractually messy.)

If, on the other hand, the answer is "to avoid potential review bias," or "because publishing under one's own name would make one's life less convenient" (for instance, there's a negative stigma associated with publishing outside one's "home" field), then it's less clear that there's an ethical violation in progress.

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And don't forget "because it's fun" as a motivation. –  Sylvain Peyronnet Nov 23 '12 at 20:16
While "it's fun" is a valid motivation, it's hard to assess the ethics of that. . . . –  aeismail Nov 24 '12 at 19:52
An additional case is a change of names, e.g. due to marriage. If you don't want your work misattributed, you may want to stick with the name you started publishing under. –  Raphael Jan 28 at 14:44
@Raphael: That's not really a pseudonym. –  aeismail Jan 28 at 18:48
@aeismail It is, in the sense that it's not your real name, i.e. the one on your ID. Of course, it was your real name once so your identity is not a secret. Pen names and other common forms of pseudonyms don't either; some will even be listed on your ID (at least in Germany). The question does not specify which purpose for publishing under a pseudonym we should discuss. –  Raphael Jan 28 at 19:00

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