Monthly Archives: December 2013

Pseudonymity and all the cuss words

From Michael Tomasson’s blog:

A senior scientist mentioned googling a potential faculty recruit and found the person’s blog describing the trials and tribulations of a life in science. The faculty member said the blog, while it was to be commended for its forthright tone, was so informal and laced with profanity that the professor could not help but hold the blog against the potential faculty member. A second senior scientist nodded in agreement. It was the consensus that aspiring young scientists should steer clear of such activities.

I thought Michael Tomasson as well as my correspondents on twitter were too quick to judge these “fusty old pricks” to the blog. Faculty are hired to improve the reputation of a university. The hiring faculty have a job to do too — to ensure that whoever they hire will reflect well on the university in the eyes of students, funding agencies, the public, and especially in the US, wealthy donors. Is it unimaginable that a rich old donor with hundreds of millions to throw around would view profanity-laced blog authored by a faculty member negatively? Perhaps the hiring faculty were just doing their job to protect the university’s reputation in the eyes of its donors. It’s hard to know for sure; we don’t have a lot of details to go on. And without more information it’s premature to conclude that they were acting inappropriately.

Secondly a writer’s register affects readers’ perceptions of gravity. This shouldn’t be controversial. If you want to be taken seriously by an audience wider than those who know you personally, steer clear of too much informality — and definitely avoid profanity. Politicians don’t swear in speeches, lawyers don’t swear in briefs, scientists don’t swear in journal articles, and the most widely-read journalists don’t swear in magazine articles. The same applies to academics blogging. Neil Armstrong’s carefully chosen first words on the moon were not “This shit is the fucking bomb!”, and for good reason.

Thirdly, it’s far from clear to me that aspiring academics should adhere to a blanket policy of pseudonymity in blogging until tenure. Many untenured academics blog in their own name. A few examples off the top of my head include Chembark, most entries at the Open Flask, and John Hawks (before he was tenured in 2008). All those blogs are well-written and reflect well on their authors — and by extension, the institutions that support them. I should say that there are many pseudonymous bloggers I admire, for example Chemjobber, Female Science Professor, See Arr Oh, and others. Of course I don’t know for sure, but I think most of them are pseudonymous for reasons other than wanting to write “informally”.

Despite typing all that out, somehow I doubt I’ll be persuasive to too many folks on the twitter scene. My final sentiments are — not for the first time — nicely encapsulated by a scene from the Big Lebowski.