Anonymous Authorship

Back in November, two of my fave LIS bloggers kicked up dust around the topic of anonymous professional authorship. On the In the Library with the Lead Pipe blog, Emily Ford outlined her feelings about anonymous and pseudonymous authorship. Emily condemned all forms of professional discourse in which an author hides his or her identity with anonymity or veils himself with an assumed name.

Undisclosed publications lack credibility and are prone to counter-productivity. As a teacher and librarian I always encourage my students to consider their source. What authority does that source have to make that argument and those claims? Without knowledge of an author’s expertise, experience, and general knowledge of the subject, how are we to even consider this kind of discourse as valid?

In response to this piece, Andy Woodworth posted “Anonymous Rex” on his Agnostic, Maybe blog. In it, Andy takes exception to several points, linking to Louis Gray’s 2009 blog post, “Welcome to the Reputation Economy”, and making some interesting suggestions regarding source credibility.

With the rise of the reputation economy, what matters is the establishment of the identity. If they are a consistent writer of meaningful content, then it builds towards that of a contributor. If they are loaded with divisive and invective terms or attacks on one’s person (as opposed to ideas), then it shifts towards a detractor.

It’s the credibility of this detractor that most interests me here. Inherent is the suggestion that credibility is subjective. A librarian and editor of educational materials, I’ve always thought of source credibility as a minimally relative concept. When judging the reliability of a source, one evaluates certain criteria. For instance, Wikipedia and other shared-authorship dot-com sites are largely unacceptable as sources for scholarly research, while everyone accepts encyclopedic sources like World Book as authoritative sources. This is mainly because the people who write entries in World Book are known scholars and researchers, their credentials disclosed plainly.

What most strikes me is what we’re saying about information literacy when we begin teaching students to consider anonymous blog articles as credible academic literature. Questions are certain to arise. Where do students draw the line between credible and unreliable? Why can’t vitriolic articles be treated as credible if the criticism is sincere and the supporting details are factual? How thin are we spreading the field of credible literature?

Self-published doesn’t intrinsically equal unreliable. But neither is a published print article any more authoritative than its self-published counterpart. Rather, the problems stem directly from anonymity. If the credibility of the author cannot be confirmed, then neither can the credibility of her work. Of course, one can verify or disprove factual legitimacy of any alleged qualifiable or quantifiable piece of information within a self-published work. Yet the authority of any original material contained within an anonymous work remains asterisked. The fact that the work is published without accountability of an established publisher renders it deficient where professional and scholarly research is concerned.

Andy goes on to ask whether the library profession should defend those who choose anonymity in professional authorship.

Is there a compelling reason not to extend this courtesy to professional discourse when the content is well written, well reasoned, and within the scope of professional literature?

To this I would say not necessarily, because the anonymous author of this type of content has no reason to hide behind a pseudonym. He simply chooses to, for whatever reason. Still, although I wouldn’t dissuade library students from consulting or using these pieces as professional information sources, I would suggest these sources be used off the record. I may encourage students to consider the content of these pieces and to allow the anonymous sources to inform their thoughts, arguments, and viewpoints, but, for purposes of academic research, to treat them as supplementary and confine their official research to professional sources who have the credibility of disclosure.

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About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

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