Against Anonymity

Jeffrey R. Di Leo explores issues of identity, dialogue and the practice of keeping identities secret in many practices of the academy.

July 7, 2009

The history of English literature is replete with authors who hid their names from their audience. Should the 21st-century academy also follow in this tradition? Jonathan Swift, for example, published all of his satirical writings without revealing his identity to his audience. In the case of his late masterwork, Gulliver’s Travels, a work — as he wrote in a famous letter to Alexander Pope on September 29, 1725 — designed “to vex the world rather than divert it,” Swift went so far as to have an intermediary deliver a sample part of the manuscript to his publisher. Should contemporary academics follow Swift’s lead and publish all of their critical writings anonymously? Should they even put their name on critical assessments of their colleagues? What role, if any, should anonymity play in the contemporary academy?

While Swift may be a more elaborate case of an author wishing to deceive the public — and his publisher — as to his true identity, he was far from the only famous English writer to mask his or her identity. Spencer, Donne, Marvell, Defoe, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Byron, Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, Tennyson, George Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Doris Lessing are some of the writers who published works that did not reveal their true identity to their audience.

Given that these authors and their works are some of the cornerstones of the English literary canon, one might wonder why these authors did not put their names to some of their greatest works of writing. The simplest — and probably best — answer is fear: fear of things like persecution or imprisonment. This link between fear and anonymity is now carried on in the academy. Though fear of persecution or imprisonment might not persuade academics today to hide their identity from their audience, fear of retaliation surely does. Some academics fear that negative — or even positive — comments about their colleagues will lead to retaliation from them.

This, in turn, leads many contemporary academics to voice their comments from behind the veil of anonymity. Or, worse yet, convinces them to alter their comments because they are not anonymous. The practice of anonymous critical assessment is relatively common and widely accepted in the academy. So too is the understanding that some non-anonymous comments by academics may not be reflective of their true opinions.

Here is an example of how the logic of academic fear works with respect to non-anonymous comments: Professor Jones is asked to write a reader’s report on the worthiness for publication of Professor Hill’s manuscript. Jones reads Hill’s manuscript and believes that it is a “weak” contribution to the field, and believes that it should not be published. However, the potential publisher of Hill’s manuscript tells Jones that his name and his comments will be passed along to Hill. Jones fears that if he writes a negative report of Hill’s work, that Hill will in turn retaliate against Jones by writing a negative report of Jones’ work should the opportunity arise. Therefore, Jones decides to write a “less negative” or “more positive” report of Hill’s manuscript.

A variation of this example involves the use of anonymous comments, rather than non-anonymous ones: To avoid a “dishonest” report by Jones, the publisher assures him that his comments will be kept anonymous. Therefore, Jones knowing that Hill will not discover his identity decides that he will provide a more honest assessment of the manuscript.

There are of course many variations of these scenarios including a totally anonymous interchange: An anonymous manuscript stripped of all indicators of the identity of its author is read by a reviewer whose identity is in turn not revealed to the author. Moreover, the logic of academic fear does not end with peer review of manuscripts. It is not uncommon, for example, for the identity of students to be hidden in the assessment of their professors. It is also not uncommon for the identity of faculty to be hidden from administration in their assessment of them.

Should the identity of individuals within the academy be hidden so that they may speak freely (and honestly) about each other? Or is the practice of anonymity within the academy contrary to the aim of the academy, namely, the free and honest exchange of ideas and opinions in pursuit of knowledge? Is increasing the frequency and range of anonymous assessment in the academy in its best interest? Or does encouraging anonymous assessment within the academy promote a less collegial and more thin-skinned academy? These and similar questions raise significant issues that have not received a whole lot of attention.

The prevailing wisdom seems to be that anonymity is an accepted and acceptable practice with positive implications for the academy. Many seem to believe that like the history of English literature, where anonymity has provided writers with the opportunity to express their ideas and opinions without fear of retaliation, the history of the contemporary academy will show that anonymity has been a positive, liberating practice. However, such a history of the academy would be nothing more than a fairy tale.

I believe that anonymity is the enemy of dialogue, and, as such, should have a fairly limited role in the academy.

Dialogue in Academe

Dialogue in academe involves the free exchange of ideas and opinions. It requires that the interlocutors respond to each other and know to whom they are speaking. It is difficult, if not impossible, to have a discussion or debate when one of the discussants or debaters does not participate. Furthermore, it is not possible to have a discussion with no one — some minimal level of identity is required for those who participate in dialogue.

Differing ideas and differences of opinion make the academy a vibrant, living, organic entity. Within the academy, individuals are expected to defend their ideas and opinions to the best of their ability. The question and answer rhythm of dialogue tempered by rational reflection assures that no idea or opinion passes through the academy without proper critical assessment. Knowledge of the identity of the interlocutors allows for proper and relevant questions to be asked — it also allows for questioners and answerers to be accountable.

The aim of dialogue in the academy is not merely to just state or assert one's opinion. Simply asserting one's opinion to one another has more in common with two dogs barking at each another than two people engaging in dialogue. The aim of dialogue is rather to defend or argue for one’s opinion against any and all objections. The ideal here is the type of dialogues fictionalized in the early writings of Plato. An opinion that cannot be defended against objections has no place in the contemporary academy, just as it had no place in the ancient Greek academy.

Once a view or position is stated or expressed, the expectation in the academy is that through dialogue between the source of the opinion and other members of the academy, particularly students and faculty, stronger ideas will continue to be discussed and debated, and weaker ideas will gradually fade from conversation — and be dismissed. Without the free exchange of ideas and opinions in pursuit of knowledge, the academy perishes — or at least loses part of its distinctive character.

The free exchange of ideas and opinions in the academy assumes that the aim of this free exchange is the dissemination and production of knowledge — not opinion. Discussion of all opinions and ideas in an environment that is conducive to separating the defensible opinions from the indefensible ones is essential. This means that those who share their opinions with others should not fear negative consequences or reprisal for doing so. This does not mean, however, that individuals who promote bad ideas or opinions should not be identified with them. On the contrary, if one promotes an idea or opinion which is eventually dismissed through academic dialogue, this (bad) opinion or idea becomes part of one’s academic identity.

While the continued identification of an individual with his or her bad idea or opinion within the academy may seem like a harsh statement, it is ultimately a fair one. Just as individuals that promote sound ideas and opinions continue to be identified with them, so too should individuals who promote unsound ideas and opinions be identified with them. Take for example the philosopher/scientist Albert Einstein.

Early in Einstein’s career, his notions about relativity were met with disapproval by his colleagues and members of the academic community. However, this negative reaction from his colleagues only encouraged him to find stronger grounds upon which to convince them that his ideas about relativity were valid and sound. Ultimately, he prevailed in the critical dialogue about his ideas, and was awarded with not only the Nobel Prize, but the respect and ear of the academic world. If Einstein had not prevailed, his identity as a person of intelligence and compassion would not have been secured — and his subsequent ideas and opinions would have had far less visibility. Later in his life, the world listened intently to Einstein’s comments about things other than physics because they were his ideas. Epistemological affiliations which result from critical dialogue are powerful.

Just as one tends to benefit positively from the successful defense of an idea, so too should one benefit negatively from the unsuccessful defense of an idea. Trust and power in the academy is earned, not randomly bestowed upon individuals. It does not mean that one examines any less vigorously the ideas of Einstein as opposed to someone who has never successfully defended an idea — let alone a revolutionary one. Rather, it means that those whom we value as voices of wisdom in the academy have earned this through past argumentative success, not through dialogical failure. Continued failure to successfully defend one’s opinions and ideas should not be rewarded by the academy; rather, it should be met with increasing skepticism as to the academic abilities of the individual — and possibly even dismissal of the individual from the academy, particularly if there is no record of academic (or dialogical) success.

Anonymity Is Anti-Dialogue

The academy has an obligation to protect itself from anything that enervates critical dialogue and to encourage anything that energizes it. While repeated failure to defend ones ideas and opinions is not admirable, it is also not reprehensible or unexpected. Publication, tenure and promotion, merit pay, and respect are some of the major ways in which the academy rewards dialogical success (and the denial of these are some of the ways it “punishes” failure). How then does anonymity figure into this picture? In particular, how does it contribute to the promotion of dialogue in the academy?

A common response is that anonymity is of benefit to the university because it protects individuals against reprisals from other members of the academy. In particular, anonymity is utilized to assure the free exchange of ideas and opinions in the academy. If one’s identity is not revealed in the stating of an opinion, then one cannot be the recipient of any negative (or positive) consequences from said opinion. In this climate, anonymity functions like the mythical Ring of Gyges: academics can say and do whatever they wish without fear of direct negative consequences for their actions. But does the normal operation of the academy require a Ring of Gyges? I don’t think so. In fact, I would go one step further and maintain that anonymity is also ultimately not in the best interest of the academy.

Anonymity affords one the opportunity to speak without having to be accountable for the consequences of one’s speech. Anonymous propositions do not draw their power from the reputation of the speaker. Rather, they draw their power from the fact that they could be from anyone — from their disaffiliation. They speak for and from everyone and no one. Once the identity of the source of the anonymous proposition is revealed, they become part of the world of dialogue, affiliation, and situated discourse; however, if the identity of their source is never revealed, they have a decidedly halting effect on discourse.

Anonymous propositions are fundamentally monological, not dialogical. Whereas a proposition that is attributed to or affiliated with someone always contains the possibility of being questioned or interrogated, anonymous statements cannot be questioned because there is no one to ask. Because anonymous propositions are not subject to the process of question and answer, they cannot speak back or respond to requests to explain themselves (because their source is unknown). These epistemological limitations make them a weak source of knowledge. Furthermore, anonymous propositions discourage human interaction and inquiry.

Students commonly evaluate their professor’s performance in the classroom anonymously. The alleged reason is that students will be more honest in their evaluations if they know that the professor will never be able to track the comment back to them. The fear is that if a student says something negative about their professor, then the professor will retaliate by either giving the student a lower grade in the course under evaluation or the next course that the student takes with the professor. Though this may be a valid point — some professors are vindictive — the solution to this problem is not anonymity, but rather professional reprimand.

Furthermore, comments from students under the guise of anonymity are generally not very instructive. “Professor Jones is the best teacher ever,” writes the student. Jones is then credited with superior teaching performance on the basis of this comment. But consider some possible reasons that the student might have written this comment: 1) The student is a “C” student, but because Jones is an easy grader, he or she received an “A” in his course; 2) The professor conducted class by passing out cookies and Kool-Aid each day, and told stories about his college days; 3) Professor Jones canceled the final exam; 4) Professor Jones challenged his student to master the material and an otherwise “A” student earned a “C” (and the kudos of the student); or 5) Professor Jones is the best teacher ever (outshining both Einstein and Socrates). These reasons may be multiplied many times but lead to the same conclusion: an anonymous student comment is not very informative. Furthermore, it begs for the question and answer process that dialogue provides to get at the reality of Professor Jones’ classroom performance. In other words, one needs to know a lot more about the identity of the student in order to determine the validity and soundness of their comment. Dialogue would provide this; anonymity denies it.

The case of anonymous peer evaluation is not much better in terms of dialogic effect. In her article, “Seven Faces of Anonymity in Academe," Lynn Bloom speaks to this issue directly: “I never sign my reviews. This is not a dialogue. I do not what to know your rebuttal, though I am willing to read thoroughgoing, thoughtful revision. I do not want to know the impact of my review on your life, professional or personal, or on your feelings. I am providing a Service to the Profession, even if it means keeping you out.”

Bloom is of course right. Anonymity in manuscript review allows reviewers to disengage from dialogue. It of necessity keeps the author of the manuscript outside of the dialogic process. She is also right in that reviews impact lives: they are not singular events for the manuscript’s author even though they may be for the anonymous manuscript reviewer.

To consider Bloom’s comments fairly, one must distinguish between anonymous reviewers reviewing anonymous manuscripts, and anonymous reviewers reviewing manuscripts where the identity of the author is revealed. Because the former short-circuits the potential of dialogue by not including any identity markers in the review process, one can maintain that this process is not as problematic as one wherein the reviewer knows the identity of the author but the author does not know the identity of the reviewer. The former may be called the “totally anonymous review process,” and the latter the “partially anonymous review process.”

With regard to the partially anonymous review process, it does not make a whole lot of difference if the reviewer or the manuscript author’s identity is not revealed. The same problem holds for each situation — a problem that parallels the case of a student who knows the identity of the professor but the professor does not know the identity of the student (or vice versa). Just as student evaluation under this condition is problematic, so too is the partially anonymous review process.

When the identity of one of the two parties in the review process is revealed, the possibility of dialogue takes hold. The partially anonymous review process is by definition failed dialogue. It is akin to an unidentified person yelling a comment from behind a curtain to a person who is standing before a crowd. The comment is “Professor Jones is a poor scholar!” Rightfully so, Jones and the audience will wonder about the identity of the person making the comment, and want to ask more in depth questions of them. It makes a difference if the person yelling the comment is a respected scholar in Jones’ field of expertise or a young man who has not even graduated from high school. The partial review process leaves lingering questions of identity that the totally anonymous review process avoids. While one can ask questions as to why an anonymous reviewer failed to see the power of an anonymous manuscript they reviewed, the doubt that is raised by an anonymous reviewer of a non-anonymous manuscript raises an entirely different set of questions, such as does the reviewer have a personal or professional problem with the author? And so on.

All of the scenarios of anonymous assessment mentioned above share the same effect, namely that of short-circuiting dialogue. If one believes, as I do, that dialogue is an essential feature of academia, then one must conclude that anonymous assessment is antithetical to the very idea of the academy. While one might be able to live with a less than ideal academy which extensively utilizes anonymity but is otherwise collegial, one would not be able to live in an academy that is uncollegial in part as an effect of anonymity. Let’s now briefly turn to the effect of anonymity on collegiality before establishing a conclusion on the role anonymity should play in the academy.

Anonymity, Collegiality, and Critical Judgment

The common rationale for academic anonymity is quite clear: if one were required to accompany one's assessment with one’s true identity, one would not speak the truth.

While I think that a case may be made that total anonymity is fairer than partial anonymity, the fact remains that anonymity by definition halts dialogue. Imagine, if you will, an academy where all were required to reveal their identity when they voiced their opinions or ideas. Further imagine that in this ideal academy everyone was expected to think about and respond to the ideas and opinions of others: Where critical dialogue was the norm, not the exception. Would this not be a desired situation?

Part of the problem with academia today is a fear and avoidance of critical judgment. Some even believe that criticizing the views of another is a fundamentally uncollegial (if not also unethical) act, and that uncritically supporting a colleague is a collegial act. Academia has created a culture and ethics of uncritical consent and has hidden it behind the cloak of collegiality. Uncritical kindness in response to any and all of our colleagues’ ideas and opinions is not only fundamentally uncollegial; it is also an abdication of academic responsibility.

The only reason that anonymity is so prevalent in academia today is that as academics we have forgotten that critically thinking about the opinions and ideas of others is what we do — or even what we do best. It is the task of the academic to be critical. Anonymity breaks down the critical dialogue that brings us together into a unified profession in search of answers to our questions—and questions to our answers. It atomizes the profession in a way that sets one individual and their ideas against the other in personal (not epistemological) competition for superiority. According to the popular logic of anonymity, academia is “nasty, brutish, and hard — a war of all against all” for position and power.

Collegiality requires dialogue. If we set up practices in the academy that prohibit or prevent dialogue, then we are fundamentally enabling uncollegial behavior. Partial anonymity, at least, is always already uncollegial behavior; and total anonymity, while less pernicious than partial anonymity, still discourages dialogue, and therefore is also fundamentally uncollegial.

Part of the reason that many people have difficulty sharing critical judgment with others in the academy is that we have created a culture where critical judgments must be protected from fear of retribution. If one were forced to reveal his or her identity in all critical judgment situations, individuals would probably take more time to develop their arguments knowing that they could become themselves the object of critical attention. While it goes without saying that it is wrong to be the subject of retaliation for one’s ideas and opinions, it also goes without saying that the culture of retaliation is encouraged (rather than discouraged) by the widespread use of anonymity.

It is acceptable within the public sphere to anonymously share an opinion and not have to answer to questions or concerns raised about it. However, within the academic sphere, this is simply not desired behavior. If one, for example, posts on his or her blog a statement concerning one’s belief in gremlins, one is not obligated to respond to persons who disagree with this statement. However, in the academy, students, faculty, and administration are expected to answer to questions about their opinions. When sharing an idea or opinion with ones colleagues, one should expect — and hope — that they respond to it. This is what being a colleague means.

Conclusion: Against Anonymity

The widespread use of anonymity in academia should be a cause for concern, not celebration. If dialogue is the warp and woof of the academy, and collegiality demands dialogue, then the use of anonymity in the academy should be discouraged. Though individual cases might be made where anonymity is justified in academia, these are far from the norm. The norm in academia should be against the use of anonymity, rather than for it. Increasing the role and scope of anonymity in the academy serves to make it less collegial and more fractious by discouraging dialogue as the major source of critical assessment. The academy must work toward the elimination of all forms of anonymous critical assessment — lest it lose the characteristic which most distinguishes it from other institutions: the free exchange of ideas and opinions in pursuit of knowledge.


Jeffrey R. Di Leo is dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and associate professor of English and philosophy at the University of Houston-Victoria. He is also founder of the journal symploke, were a longer version of this essay will be part of an issue devoted to the topic of anonymity.


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