As we may ask and answer various questions on online forums or stack exchange regarding teaching, research, publishing etc; it may reveal our lack of knowledge on any basic topic. This might hurt us in the future as an already established academician. So, should we participate in those online forums or stack exchange sites under pseudo-names to remain anonymous?

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    I've migrated this question from the main board to this board because the question is about the board, rather than academia per se. Under our FAQ, this question belongs here. – aeismail Oct 20 '12 at 21:01
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    @aeismail it's also relevant to academia… I would suggest it to edit the question to make it broader, covering online Q&A sites or forums (an not only academia.SE). And of course, migrated back to the main site. – F'x Oct 20 '12 at 21:38
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    @F'x - Interesting, I would imagine this could be appropriate on a broader scale. However, I would think that the general question "how should I conduct myself online when the topic may affect my work?" is more on-topic at Workplace.SE than here. – eykanal Oct 21 '12 at 0:40
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    Okay. I've moved the question back to the main board, as the question scope now makes more sense for this board. – aeismail Oct 21 '12 at 22:07
up vote 29 down vote accepted

This is a very good point. There are certain questions I'd like to ask, but cannot because I'm not at all anonymous for the reasons you allude to or because current students might read those answers. That said, I chose not to be anonymous and I have adjusted my behaviour accordingly. Maybe my students like the idea that I can answer their questions on such a public forum (well, perhaps one of the more topic specific forums).

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    an alternative approach is to use a pseudonym for those questions and comments you'd like to be anonymous. – Abe Oct 26 '12 at 3:12
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    @Abe, although site moderators will be able to see that you are the same person. – sperners lemma Oct 28 '12 at 20:16
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    @Abe That's all well and good until a mod merges your account! – Jase Dec 18 '12 at 16:52

That's a good question. I don't have a permanent position yet, and I'm aware that anything I post here can potentially be read by future recruiting committee, so I'm also careful of the way I can ask questions or post answers. I don't think it's a problem to show that you might lack some knowledge, considering that you're also showing you're aware of it and taking some measures to get that knowledge.

That being said, nothing prevents you to log out and ask a question anonymously. Your IP is not public, so you're safe.

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    Your IP is not public… well, the default gravatar is IP-based, so I guess one could try to ID your IP through your gravatar :) – F'x Oct 20 '12 at 21:55
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    +1 for "log out and ask anonymously"... I've done this on occasion on other SE sites for a variety of reasons, and the answers I received were just as good. Your privacy is as airtight as you make it. – eykanal Oct 21 '12 at 0:42
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    disagree with the above comment: SO central and more specifically metaSO have a reputation-driven acceptance of users, questions, answers and in general participation. This has been recognised at various stages (here, here or here). Whether this is a real problem for SO I cannot say, but that behaviour exists – ElCid Oct 22 '12 at 11:20
  • a pseudonym is an alternative, that provides access to the notifications and summaries, etc. – Abe Oct 26 '12 at 3:14
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    Your IP is not public, and you're safe ... Until they merge your account. – Jase Dec 13 '12 at 16:15

I think that using real names should be encouraged. And if someone feels comfortable with it - just do it. However, when it may refrain someone from asking questions, then it's better to use a nickname.


People are afraid of asking "too simple" questions (what may affect life d some SE sites). But in general, whether offline or online, there are two possibilities:

  • pretend that to be all-knowing (knowing that they won't believe you anyway),
  • ask when you don't know, even if it seems simple (and "a simple question" asked in one's field can be in fact very advanced).

Moreover, seeing serious guys asking simple questions may be very encouraging for others to ask. So please, if there are any postdocs and professors here, give a good example by using you own name (and not being afraid to ask under it :)).

Just comparing to regular interactions with TAs and professors - being able to say "I don't know" gives respect (unless someone is totally clueless, but it that case one cannot cover it anyway).

Furthermore, let me quote a part of the MathOverflow FAQ, as a part of establishing one's scientific reputation:

We also encourage you to use your real name as your username. In your own enlightened self-interest, realise that participating in blogs, MathOverflow, the arXiv, and mathematical publishing are all forms of advertising for your "brand", even if that’s not your principal purpose (and hopefully it’s not). Since job applications require you to write your real name, you might as well use it everywhere else, too.

Using real names reminds everybody that they are corresponding with real people, and it demonstrates a certain level of personal investment in your MathOverflow identity. If you use a pseudonym and you get into some kind of trouble (e.g. fights in comment threads or spammy-looking posts), the moderators are much less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Moreover, I've never heard of anyone's reputation (or job opportunities) being harmed by asking technical questions. Allegedly it may help, but I've never heard the opposite. So, IMHO, the risk here is overvalued.


When it comes to issues related to talking about frictions with other people, institutions, abuse, etc (and other sensitive things) - then I guess the best approach is to use anonymous post anyway. Or have a nickname only for a few posts.

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    Adding to that, I have asked some questions I thought were technical but have remained open until now. Sometimes, apparently simple questions are not so simple, it's just that nobody asks them. – Raphael Apr 23 '14 at 10:22

I'll add an answer, because I am one of the posters who chose to participate to SE pseudonymously. I see two reasons one would want to do so. The first would be to set up a really airtight firewall between real-life identity and some online circles. This allows you to ask questions of a more personal or confidential nature, but also severely restricts the information you can give up (and thus your interaction with others on the site).

The second approach, which is the one I follow, is less stringent: I merely use a pseudonym to make the link between my SE identity and my real identity not immediately Googleable. But, the link can (and has been) established, both ways. I have given here on SE more than enough information (spread over questions, answers and chat) to uniquely identify my ID. I also know that some colleagues know my account name… in part because, I'll admit to it, I do wear those SE T-shirts at work sometimes :)

I am still pretty much myself, and don't restrict what I say any more than I would do to any person I would meet in the street and discuss with. I allows for some more candor, while still knowing one can be held accountable for one’s words. I like that.

  • that's interesting, so would you say that there's a limit of anonymity that one can be warranted before being made known to all? Provocative question: would you give up your reputation points and start a-fresh if that was to restore your anonymity again? – ElCid Oct 22 '12 at 11:04

I'll add few points, let me know if these could be considered as some sort of answer:

Points in favour for revealing your name:

  1. your name and identity become associated with your reputation, hence telling the world that you're some sort of expert in that domain, area, set of questions
  2. you can use such reputation for outside StackOverflow: informally, one such question arose on Meta-StackOverflow here and here and here and here. How recruiters will use this type of information is still premature to say
  3. you can impress your students, friends and family :-)

Points in favour for NOT revealing your name:

  1. as an academic, I value the anonymous feedback to my content, being project proposals, papers, or anything else. I would argue that one of the greatest features of the peer-review approach is not to know who's your reviewer, so that she can bash some extremely harsh feedback without the need of expecting some back-slash from it

  2. as a SO user, your name, gender, identity should not matter, the quality of answers and questions should be more important. If you sample SO users, you will notice that the majority of them are not identifiable in terms of their nationality, gender, age or other characteristics. It seems to me that the users of "online communities" have more incentives to reveal such information; whether a Q&A site (as SO) does not strictly need that piece of information

  • +1 for points for both options. When it comes to anonymity - while for peer-review it is good, it seems that in open environment people behave more openly, see e.g. discussions on SE, G+ or in blog comments, even of famous scientists. Perhaps it happens because the participation is voluntary plus answers/comment are visible to everyone. And yes, needless to say, name, gender, nationality, one's favourite dish (or even credentials) should not matter on SE. However, they should not matter either on publications and most people publish under their own names. – Piotr Migdal Oct 22 '12 at 19:03
  • And you can do both. It is sometimes helpful to have a straw man, also to keep accounts on personal sites (here, parenting, music, ...) separate from technical sites (stats, programming, etc) ... and there would be no rule against claiming credit for both accounts if you wanted. – Abe Oct 26 '12 at 3:19
  • @Abe oh i like what you say... I used to have only a NameSurname type of user on SO, but I did not want to share some of the discussions I had on SO itself, so I generated another one instead – ElCid Oct 26 '12 at 13:15

Participation in a board such as this is strictly voluntary, and people have the choice to identify themselves by whatever means they choose: with their realnames, with pseudonyms, with login names, or with no names at all.

People are, of course, responsible for their actions and their behavior, but it's not up to us to tell them that they must be anonymous, or that they must use their real names. All we can do is tell the to do whatever they feel is appropriate in their own situations.

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    I get the impression that this answer is just begging the question: which course of action is appropriate in what situations, then? – Konrad Rudolph Oct 22 '12 at 14:53
  • If you feel that your superiors would be concerned with you posting in a public forum, then it's probably not a good idea to post publicly. If you're a department chair with job security, it probably doesn't make a difference, so long as you don't say anything staggeringly inappropriate. If you're somewhere in between (as most of us are), you have to choose what level is most comfortable. Saying "everyone must participate anonymously" is as silly as saying "no pseudonyms permitted." – aeismail Oct 22 '12 at 16:00

This is a great question. There have been several instances when I wanted to clear some doubts about basic stuff, and wondered if it would be appropriate to post it in a way that would be visible on my profile.

After going back and forth for a while, I created a pseudo-id, but in the end, I decided to just use my regular account. The intention was to make a point, that my students should not feel embarrassed to ask a question, even if it is a very basic question.

OK, here is one more data point to this.

In the early 90s I hit Usenet and fell in love with it. For about a decade I have, under my real name, actively participated in discussions about programming, literature, child raising, the organization of the de.* hierarchy, and whatnot. During this time, several Usenet search engines emerged, assembled data, swallowed each other like a pool full of sharks, until finally the whole data ended up at google.

And it's all still there! If you know my real name, you can find my views onto programming, books, and child raising as well as certain personal stories that I now wish I hadn't posted, and a few flame wars I participated in more than a decade ago. While it happened back then, I felt increasingly bad about this, but, being tightly embedded in communities I didn't want to give up, I failed to see how to change that. (Also, looking back at all that always made me think that the worst damage has already been done, and that I wouldn't be as stupid anymore. Sigh. How silly an idea.)

When it got to the point that, when I typed my name into google, it would suggest the remainder once I had barely started on my last name, I pulled plug and decided to go into hiding. Out of the likely online handles I picked one that hides behind a big institution at google, I setup an email address that I only use for services where I use that handle, and I became very strict about revealing my identity to members of online communities. (There isn't even half a dozen people, on SE or elsewhere, who know the name behind my moniker.)

Now, google won't suggest my name until I have typed the very last letter, neither my coworkers nor my superiors know my online name, and almost nobody out there knows who's behind "sbi". I can ask questions, give answers, and state opinions just as I want, without having to consider the opinions of, or the impact on, any of them. I can speak openly about how I feel at work without having to fear my superiors might see it. I can ask questions about stuff I am working on that I could not ask if the company I worked for was known (because it would give clues to competitors), and I can discuss child raising without having to worry what my kids will think about me (or a prospective employer will think about the family they came from) — well, at least there's nothing new to worry about now.

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    Dad? Is that you? – Abe Oct 26 '12 at 20:19
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    @Abe: You still mad at me? :) – sbi Oct 27 '12 at 5:42

I post under my real name, mostly because I started out by doing so on MathOverflow (where this is encouraged, and which I see as an extension of my public mathematical career). I have a general sense that this adds to the professional atmosphere of this site.

I'm not too worried about damaging my career by posting a question or an answer that looks stupid or "reveals my lack of knowledge". I have no doubt I've already done that a few times, but I have enough trust in the academic community to believe that a reader will understand that I write in good faith and my goal is to learn and/or help. I also trust that any reader will remember that they've had "stupid" questions or opinions of their own, and avoid judging me too harshly.

However, I do take care to keep my posts professional, remembering that I'm speaking publicly. Among other things:

  • I try to maintain a calm, courteous and measured tone in my writing. I take extra time to make sure that what I post is reasonably well written, and hopefully not subject to misinterpretation.

  • I will share my own experiences where they relate generally to academic life. I won't share details that implicate other people who could be identified, reveal confidential or non-public information, or expose details about my institution's internal politics. I won't post rumors or hearsay, or incidents that happened to other people (unless they're already public knowledge). I won't share experiences that are overly personal.

  • I'll share my personal opinions or advice on academic matters, particular where I think my views are likely to be representative of the academic community as a whole, or a significant segment thereof. If I have unusual personal opinions on a particular issue, especially if I think they're likely to be controversial, I'll probably keep them to myself; partly out of self protection, but mostly because I don't think people who ask questions here are looking for answers from the lunatic fringe.

Contrary to ElCid's answer, I have no expectation of impressing anyone or building my academic reputation with my posts here.

If I have a question or answer of a sensitive nature, I would post it anonymously (using Tor or something similar to hide my IP address if I were particularly concerned).

I understand that other participants may prefer, for their own reasons, to participate under pseudonyms. I fully respect their decisions.

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