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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
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 13:09
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    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
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 13:33
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    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
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 14:47
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    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 Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 16:44
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    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
    Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 4:16

3 Answers 3

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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
    Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 17:24
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    @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). Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 20:15
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    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
    Commented Nov 26, 2012 at 8:07
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    If the pseudonym is used consistently, it is not relevant what "real person" it relates to, it gives you a picture of what to expect under this name. There is a good reason artists often use pseudonyms. With scientists, I do not see a fundamental difference. In fact, Sophie Germain used pseudonyms to study at a time where it was illegal for women to study or when communicating with Gauss. Was that unethical? When she was found out (e.g. by Gauss), they were, against expectation, positively surprised - but, shouldn't it be irrelevant who is behind the pseudonym? Commented Feb 5, 2016 at 15:49
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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. Commented Nov 23, 2012 at 20:16
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    While "it's fun" is a valid motivation, it's hard to assess the ethics of that. . . .
    – aeismail
    Commented Nov 24, 2012 at 19:52
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    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
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 14:44
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    @Raphael: That's not really a pseudonym.
    – aeismail
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 18:48
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    @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
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 19:00
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There are various views of the usage of pseudonym. I'd say a prevalent one in Europe is that its part of the special protection of authors in the sense of freedom of speech. I do not know how this is handled in the US or otherwhere, but in many European countries there is a constitutional right of protection of pseudonyms (which implies the right of publishing under a pseudonym if desired for any reason).

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