Note: Inside Higher Ed gave the editors of the Journal of Philosophy the opportunity to respond to this article. They declined, but did confirm the change in editorial policy noted below.
What would you feel if you were informed that, for the first time in your academic career, your article was accepted for publication in the very top general journal in your discipline? Pride? Elation? A delusion of grandeur?
I had some of these feelings myself a couple of years ago when my wife phoned me one morning to tell me that I had just received a letter with the very good news from the Journal of Philosophy. I still remember how excited I was that my article "Guilt by Statistical Association: Revisiting the Prosecutor’s Fallacy and the Interrogator’s Fallacy" would appear in the journal that to philosophers is approximately what Nature is to scientists. But I also immediately became worried. Although the paper offered a completely honest and responsible analysis of its topic, there was a problem with the authorship of that wretched article.
No, it was not plagiarized. In fact, quite the opposite. Whereas plagiarizing is publishing someone else’s work under one’s own name, what I was about to do was publish my own work under someone else’s name. And this someone else did not exist.
OK, why did I use a pseudonym? Was I merely trying to be funny or amusing? Was I just fooling around like the late (and delightfully extravagant) linguist Jim McCawley who enjoyed publishing stuff under names like “Quang Phuc Dong“ or “Yuck Foo“ (a spoonerism of you know what)? Or was I perhaps trying to imitate the playfulness of philosopher David Lewis who once wrote an article in which he criticized his own views and then published it under the pseudonym “Bruce LeCatt“ (the name of his own cat)?
Not really. Although I do love this kind of humor, I had a more pressing reason for hiding my identity. The thing is that at that time the Journal of Philosophy did not have a practice of blind refereeing of submitted papers. On the contrary, it even publicly advertised on its website that decisions about publication were usually made without the submissions being anonymized: "A majority of papers submitted to us are reviewed by the members of our editorial board… Manuscripts while in circulation inside the editorial board are not blinded." (In 2010 the journal changed its policy without explanation and introduced blind refereeing.)
What exactly was the problem with my name being known to the journal editors, who were to read my manuscript and decide about it? Well, I don’t want to go into too much detail about this delicate matter. It should suffice to say that several years ago one of the editors took umbrage at my published criticism of his views and even became angry (on his own admission). Therefore, arguably, had the article been associated with my name, any lingering resentment could have easily interfered with impartial refereeing. Notice that no accusation is being lodged here, not even a hypothetical one. I am not claiming that I had compelling grounds to believe that this kind of bias would happen, but only that I feared that it might happen.
Now, even if my fear had no basis in reality, I still thought that the journal itself was to blame for this awkward situation. For if it had only adopted the usual practice of blind refereeing (the norm for most scholarly journals), the worry that troubled me could not have arisen. So although the use of pseudonyms is indeed quite rare in academic publications, it seemed to me that it could be justified in this case.
The reader may wonder why I did not deal with the worry about potential bias by simply submitting the paper to another philosophical journal that had a better policy of reviewing manuscripts. There is an answer to that. Since my article went beyond "pure philosophy" and addressed some specific issues in statistics and criminology, the Journal of Philosophy was clearly the best choice because among the top general philosophy journals it is by far most open to interdisciplinary contributions. Moreover, its officially declared purpose is to "encourage the interchange of ideas, especially the exploration of the borderline between philosophy and other disciplines." In sum, the nature of the article dictated the journal, which didn’t have blind refereeing, which in turn made the use of a pseudonym advisable.
The first step then was to choose a nom de plume. Obviously I didn’t spend a huge amount of time on that, for I was well aware from the beginning that the chance of my article being accepted for publication in the Journal of Philosophy was very low. It's not that I had any doubts that my paper was an earth-shattering contribution to philosophical knowledge. It's more that I was afraid that others might not be able to recognize that.
Anyway, the name that soon sprang to mind and won the competition hands down was "Carmen de Macedo." One of its advantages is that it really has a good sound to it. Besides, I knew that in the unlikely case that I pulled the trick off, the name could be neatly used for a catchy title (see above), if I eventually decided to tell the entire story.
After the plan was promptly approved by my superego in January of 2008, I proceeded to open a Gmail account in the name of my nonexistent doppelgänger: email@example.com. Using that email I electronically submitted the article to the Journal of Philosophy under this false name, explaining along the way, somewhat apologetically, that I (Dr. Carmen de Macedo) was not currently affiliated with any university. I gave my own Hong Kong home details as Carmen’s contact address.
Five months later, instead of a rejection letter (which I frankly expected) a thick envelope addressed to Dr. de Macedo arrived in my mailbox, with the editorial verdict "Accepted without revisions" and with all those usual pre-publication documents and instructions. Wow, I did it!
Immediately, however, I was facing a new dilemma. Should I finally disclose my identity at this point, given that the decision has already been made and announced? Or perhaps not? Indeed, did any good reason remain to continue with my clandestine authorship? Actually, yes.
It could be plausibly assumed that the editors might be annoyed by my antics, and that, if told about the whole thing, they might reconsider their decision to accept my paper. Again, I am not saying that this would happen or that this was the most probable reaction. Yet it was definitely a possibility to be reckoned with.
I asked for advice from several prominent philosophers (some of whom had been editors of leading philosophy journals), and they agreed that my disclosure might well make the editors angry and lead to their retaliation. One of these consultants told me that he would himself feel bamboozled if something similar happened to him as the editor and that he did consider concealing the author's identity ethically inappropriate. He conceded that the policy of non-blind refereeing was unacceptable but he added that, in his opinion, the fact of the journal behaving badly did not justify doing likewise.
Some other colleagues, although by no means all of them, expressed similar concerns. Yet I just couldn’t see what could be morally objectionable about continuing with the Carmen gambit. The way I saw the situation was that, first, the authors surely have a right to be protected by anonymity while their articles are being evaluated. And second, since the journal failed to provide the blind review, I simply arranged for the service myself and by using a pseudonym I effectively blinded my own paper.
In the process I may even have decreased the chance of my article being accepted for publication because it could now raise many eyebrows by being linked to an author without any university affiliation and with no public record whatsoever of any academic activity or qualifications. But if I was myself ready to pay this price (for whatever reason), what was the harm in all this?
Moving from defense to offense, isn't the official doctrine in scholarly circles that it's what you say, not who you are, that counts? What’s in a name really (I mean, in this context)? Admittedly, there are situations where the use of a pseudonym would be illegitimate, as for example if writing under a different name in order to praise one’s own work or to get around the one-item-per-author rule in some publications, etc. But under normal circumstances, it is hard to see why scholars using an alias in publishing their work would be doing anything improper, irrespective of whether they did that because of some personal quirk, or because of a fear of being exposed to a personal bias, or for some other reason.
Clearing my conscience in this way and absolving myself from sin, I concluded that I was in fact not facing a moral dilemma at all but a pragmatic choice. I just had to weigh the two courses of action open to me (the Carmen strategy and the Neven strategy) and to see which of them had a higher expected value. It was a no-brainer. The Carmen strategy (continuing with the pseudonym even after receiving the editors’ letter of acceptance) would make it virtually certain that there would be no nasty last-minute surprise and that my article would see the light of day. On the other hand, the Neven strategy (coming clean about my name at this late stage) could possibly jeopardize the whole intricate scheme that was so beautifully planned, while the only advantage would be that, if everything went well, I would get the pleasure of seeing my own name printed in the Journal of Philosophy. Although I admit that this would have been kind of nice, I easily decided that having an opportunity for such an ego trip was not worth the risk.
After the decision was reached, the only thing left to do was to sign a copyright transfer form and send it back to the journal secretary. So I went ahead and drank the magic potion that helped me transform from the evil Mr. Hyde (or better, Mr. Hide) into the good Dr. de Macedo, and I then signed the form in her name. I felt a bit uneasy entering “my” new signature for the first (and last) time. For some reason, I even tried to make my handwriting look different from usual, although I was not quite sure why I really bothered. The article appeared a few months later in the June issue of 2008.
Alas, now it’s time to say good-bye to that formidable woman Carmen de Macedo, an incredibly low-profile person, an exceptionally silent collaborator and a highly elusive philosopher who just didn’t manage to make that crucial step and spring from nothingness into being. Thanks for everything, dearest Carmen, and I must say it’s a great pity that you don’t exist. For if you did, I’m pretty sure you would be quite a gal!
Neven Sesardic is a professor of philosophy at Lingnan University, in Hong Kong.