Science blogging, anonymity, and “being yourself”

A well-known, young, anonymous Indian scientist-blogger has just dropped her anonymity. Which set me thinking.

Most Indian science bloggers whom I know/follow blog under their real names, and are not shy of addressing controversial or provocative issues relating to science administration and society. Examples are T A Abinandanan, Sunil Mukhi, Arunn Narasimhan, Dheeraj Sanghi, Giridhar Madras, the late Rahul Basu (whose blog is being continued by Neelima Gupte, his wife, and Sumathi Rao, both of whom are well-known physicists), and many, many others. In fact, now that Kaneenika has “come out”, I can’t really think of an anonymous Indian scientist blogger.

In contrast, science bloggers in the west (and particularly the US) fall into two categories. The non-anonymous ones, like John Baez (one of the oldest bloggers, who I think has been doing this since before the word “blog” was invented), Sean Carroll, Timothy Gowers, Jonathan Eisen, and — again — many, many others, tend to focus on scientific research, at most digressing to topics like open access. They rarely take on more controversial topics like gender inequality, workplace harassment, and so on, let alone larger societal or political issues. (Baez, and Jacques Distler, even deleted critical but surely uncontroversial posts that they wrote on the infamous Mohamed El Naschie, the Egyptian scientist who edited an Elsevier journal where he published dozens of his own papers, each with copious citations to himself!) And then there are science bloggers like Female Science Professor and GMP who write provocative stuff about how science is actually run at their workplace, but zealously maintain their anonymity.

While there’s nothing wrong with anonymity in general, I definitely take Kaneenika’s decision to use her real name as a vote of confidence in her new workplace (IISER Pune) — a confidence that, from what I know of the place, is entirely justified.

All this reminds me of another discussion on Abi’s blog some time ago, on the question of what young scientists seeking jobs in India should reveal of their “two-body problem” — should they say that their spouse is also seeking a job in the same city, or not? Several well-known Indian scientists responded, and nearly all advised openness and suggested that Indian institutions will be accommodating to such concerns. Later, Abi pointed out that a discussion on the same topic, in the US context, led to exactly the opposite advice dominating (typical: “Bring up the second body the minute you have an offer, and not a second sooner.” And again, it’s worth noting that nearly all commenters here were anonymous, while most commenters on Abi’s blog used their real names (or easily-identifiable ones).

Finally, I quote from a mail I received from a foreign participant at a workshop we recently organised: he enjoyed interacting with us because, with American scientists in particular, “a lot of effort is invested in how one is projecting one’s image”; but “you [Indian participants] didn’t seem worried about what kind of image you’re projecting, rather just went about being yourselves and you seemed to have taken delight in social interactions.” I found that comment interesting and perhaps true.

There are negatives about doing science in India, and there is no doubt that the US is far ahead of the rest of the world in scientific achievement. But let us keep the positives about Indian science in mind, and try to build on them. If scientists — and young scientists, in particular — feel freer in India to “be themselves”, I see that as a very positive thing indeed.

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  1. RainbowScientist

     /  January 23, 2013

    I think its because of the way science is being done in USA. In US, you are continuously under pressure to bring grant money, publish and compete to gain bigger share in the department/university awards, which require a great deal of work as well as game playing, so you don’t want to reveal your identity which might affect all of these negatively. The competition is so extreme that you don’t want to bring anything other than the science to the attention of your grant or article reviewer. Also, google is becoming ever more powerful. If someone searches my name, I don’t want all those blog posts and social issues hide my professional contribution to the science.

    In India, most of the bloggers who reveal their identity are from so called elite institutes (IISC, IITs etc.). These institutes enjoy kind of superiority and freedom in Indian education system. Maybe these bloggers also enjoy kind of attention they get from blogging. You don’t see such bloggers from state universities and colleges, where people are conservative and don’t want to talk openly about problems.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 24, 2013

      It’s true what you say about elite institutes having more freedom. That said, there are some examples in the universities. Ram Ramaswamy, VC of University of Hyderabad (and formerly professor of physics at JNU Delhi — yes, though they are universities both are elite institutions), keeps an unofficial blog where he tackles notable events at his university, but also gender and other issues. And if you widen the scope to writings in other media on social issues, there are people like Shobhit Mahajan (professor in physics, Delhi University) who write widely in newspapers as well as in journals like EPW while maintaining an active physics career. As for state universities and colleges, sadly the problem there is not the quantity of their blogging but the quality of their research… I don’t doubt that they have the freedom to blog, and many of them do write in the media or do other sorts of activism. But they face enough of a struggle to do their main job, which is teaching, and their secondary job, which is research. The few who succeed in that probably don’t want other distractions!

      What to do about our universities, and especially the state universities and colleges, is a topic in itself… I learned at the golden jubilee celebrations that the genesis of my institute was in Madras University’s refusal to let Alladi Ramakrishnan teach advanced physics courses at the university. And this was in the 1950s, when world leaders like G N Ramachandran were working in Madras! So Alladi started a physics seminar in his house that was attended by interested university students, managed to attract leading international scientists to speak including Niels Bohr and Abdus Salam, and eventually attracted the attention of Nehru and got permission to start an institute of his own. If instead he had had the support of the university in starting an advanced centre there (as V.K.R.V. Rao did with the Delhi School of Economics, which in fact houses the economics and sociology departments of Delhi University), the university may have benefited — but, arguably, the institute may have become more politicised. (IMSc did maintain an agreement with Madras University, and later also Anna University, until a few years ago; I think it still exists on paper. But that was purely for degree-granting purposes.)

  2. VC

     /  January 24, 2013

    My experience with US academia was in one place about 40 years ago as a graduate student — it was not a good experience. I certainly don’t won’t to generalize based on a sample size of 1 and a bad experience.

    However, my jaw drops when I read in Kaneenika’s blog how well she treats her students — offering a loan when their scholarship money is late and making sure that the shy ones have someone to talk to in department parties, to mention a few.

    My professor was often “competitive” with his students. He would invite us once a year to his house for Thanksgiving and never failed to mention that this would never happen in the Soviet Union. He also would mention to us that our scholarship money converted into rupees was more more than what our professors back in India made. This probably was true in one limited sense but was also totally misleading: we didn’t buy food/housing/clothes/medical care in India but in the US where the scholarship money didn’t go far (certainly nowhere near as far our Indian professors’ salaries went).

    From a student experience point of view also, Indian science may have positives, especially if the professors are like Kaneenika :-)

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 24, 2013

      VC – “However, my jaw drops when I read in Kaneenika’s blog how well she treats her students — offering a loan when their scholarship money is late and making sure that the shy ones have someone to talk to in department parties, to mention a few.”

      Indeed it is very nice of her. But my postdoc advisor in the US loaned me enough for my rent deposit in New York until I got my first paycheck, so maybe it’s not totally unheard of in the US either, or maybe he (an American) was an unusually nice guy.

  3. RainbowScientist

     /  January 24, 2013

    VC, Countries and people are not frozen entity in time and space. They are dynamic entity and continuously changing within socio-economic continuum. I have had good and bad experiences while working in US and India both, and I personally think it is wrong to compare continuously these two different countries which have different priorities in terms of science research and education. The amount of money spent, domination US enjoys makes them arrogant sometime, but as money is dwindling, demographies are changing, things are changing. This piece in atlantic is interesting for its own sake:

    Rahul: I have worked in a state college for many years and know that the faculty don’t have freedom to express their opinion publicly (specially about the work, education, controversial social issues etc). At least in my state (MP), the college faculty are government employee and are bound by useless confidentiality agreement and government rules (they serve as election officers when there is city, state or central elections). If they will try to raise their opinion publicly, the college politics will make sure that these people pay the price. Many teachers in these college do a very good job in teaching and labs in my colleges were well equipped when I was there (more than 10 years ago, in Indian realities). The govt (UGC) is unnecessarily pushing these faculty to do research and publish where their main job is to teach science and they should be allowed to do that without unnecessary pressure. This creates dubious quality research with a toll on teaching and will have long term harm. I like the blog midway by L exactly for these reason that she raises issues faced by these institutions, but she also writes anonymous.

    • Rahul Siddharthan

       /  January 24, 2013

      RainbowScientist: I fully agree that it is bad to demand research of college teachers. In fact this point was raised by several people at a workshop on ethics that we had a couple of years ago: this unnecessary pressure to publish is a culprit in some of the examples of plagiarism that we see, and also in the mushrooming of obscure vanity journals.

  4. Neelima

     /  February 12, 2013

    Signing your own name does ensure that you exercise some minimal thought before unleash your opinions on the public. It also makes it less likely that you will shoot and scoot, like the Bofors gun or confuse your newness/oldness with the nation’s!


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