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    Why are real names not required for MO? Since this is a site for professional mathematicians and graduate students, I see no reason that anonymous posting should be allowed.
    • CommentAuthorRegenbogen
    • CommentTimeApr 6th 2010 edited

    If anonymity is banned, then I'm outta here. The only thing I ask is that it be not made retroactive.

    People would have various reasons for being anonymous. As long as there is no harm, please allow the artistic licence or whatever is relevant here. Also since you are from the U.S., I can point out that private information is protected under the fourth amendment.

    Bill, I sympathize with your suggestion, but aside from all other concerns it's hard to see how it could be enforced with a reasonable amount of effort. I wouldn't mind if it were more explicitly encouraged.

    It's been quite a while since I registered. When a new user registers, does anything appear on the screen encouraging use of one's real name?
    One main reason that people are pseudonymous (which is not the same as anonymous!) is to protect their google search results. People may not want their math overflow user page to appear near the top of their google results. Other people have other reasons. I don't see any real problems with people posting pseudonymously. On the margin I think it's good to encourage people to use real names, but it's not a huge deal.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeApr 6th 2010

    Wow. We got all the way to invoking amendments in two posts!


    I'll just note that while Regenbogen's constitutional objection makes absolutely no sense (it's not in any way applicable to data freely given to private actors), we have no interesting in "outing" people. While I encourage everyone to use their real names, there are perfectly valid reasons for not wanting one's real name tied to what one does on MathOverflow, and we should all respect people's decision to be pseudo/anonymous, even if you don't agree with the chain of reasoning that leads them to think they should be so.

    Perhaps more importantly, this sounds like a logistical nightmare. The current system isn't broke, so why fix it?

    While I encourage everyone to use their real names, there are perfectly valid reasons for not wanting one's real name tied to what one does on MathOverflow,

    Really, Ben? I cannot think of any.

    How about adding to the Faq page a suggestion that people use their real names or somehow identify themselves on their MO home page (or whatever it is called)?

    @Bill -- read again Noah's comment, which gives a very valid reason for acting pseudonymously, and which we've explicitly heard (in private) from several prominent mathematicians upon asking them if they'd be willing to use their real names. An excellent compromise, I think, for people who feel this way, is to use their initials. It doesn't "contaminate" google results, but it's generally pretty straightforward to identify the real person.

    I spent quite a while in the early days of MO going through the list of high reputation users and emailing people encouraging using their real names. I haven't done this recently.


    How about adding to the Faq page a suggestion that people use their real names or somehow identify themselves on their MO home page (or whatever it is called)?

    The FAQ already has this. It's under the "Be honest" section. Aside from encouraging real names like that, I don't think there's really any more we can (or should!) do. Even if there were no good reason for using a pseudonym (which there is), what mechanism do you propose for confirming whether or not somebody is using her real name? Suppose someone comes to the site and says, "I'm Jeffery Saunders". How could we possibly tell if this person is really named Jeffery Saunders or if the name is made up?

    Supposing that somebody has a brilliant answer to that question, the next question is, "what good does it do?" What is the actual benefit of insisting on real names? Have pseudonyms been causing some sort of problem?


    If someone wants to protect their google search results, but otherwise have no reason for pseudonymity, they can use a pseudonym but link to their home page (assuming they have one) in their user information. That way, anyone can easily figure out who they really are.

    • CommentAuthorKevin Lin
    • CommentTimeApr 6th 2010

    I don't see what the point of protecting one's google search results is. (I'm not saying that there isn't a point; I just don't see any point, but maybe I'm missing something.) Are you afraid that a future employer is going to google your name and find out that you asked a question about the fundamental lemma or something?? Very scandalous ;-)

    • CommentAuthorEmerton
    • CommentTimeApr 6th 2010

    Dear Kevin,

    I think the concern is more about colleagues than future employers per se. People would like colleagues to find their home-pages and papers, rather than their off-the-top-of-their-head speculations about the fundamental lemma.

    @Anton, thanks; I missed that. Harald has a good solution for people who think they are objects of a lot of Google searches. :)

    Before I answer a question, I like to know who is asking it. For one thing, if I answer or comment, that information helps me decide how to phrase my remarks.
    • CommentAuthorsigfpe
    • CommentTimeApr 6th 2010
    > I see no reason that anonymous posting should be allowed.

    A couple of people have said this. But people who wish to post pseudonymously *do* see a reason, and there's no need for you to see what that reason is. As long as they do no harm, what is the problem?
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeApr 6th 2010 edited

    My initials are not in my username, but they are in my user picture, does that count?

    • CommentAuthorBen Webster
    • CommentTimeApr 6th 2010 edited


    There are lots of reasons that aren't sufficient reason for me to post anonymously, but which I could imagine are for other people. For example, if someone was scared of embarrassing themselves, I would rather they used the site anonymously than stayed away. Similarly, I could imagine someone who had a real job worrying that it might negatively affect that job somehow (this is unlikely, but it's for the person in question to decide that, not me). It is annoying to not have context about what people know, but often their real name doesn't actually supply that anyways. I guess to me, it also just doesn't seem important. I'd answer a good question from an anonymous person than a bad question from a nonymous one.


    There's been a little bit of moderator discussion off-meta about multiple accounts (not the same thing as anonymous accounts). I feel like I should point out a few (fairly obvious) rules we expect you to follow if you have multiple accounts.

    Having multiple accounts isn't a big deal, but voting with multiple accounts is a no-no. In most cases, this simply shouldn't come up. If you want to post something anonymously, you'll probably use an unregistered account, which you can't vote with. If for some reason you find it necessary to have two registered accounts, it is your responsibility to make sure the two accounts do not interact in any way. In particular, the different accounts should not vote on the same posts or comments, they shouldn't vote for each other's posts or comments, and they should not participate in the same threads. If you break this rule, we'll be annoyed.


    Perhaps you should also require that users with two registered accounts contact the moderators?


    Perhaps you should also require that users with two registered accounts contact the moderators?

    We would certainly like to know if different accounts belong to the same person rather than having to figure it out, so if you are reading this and you have multiple accounts, drop me a line and I'll make a note of it. However, it seems like it would be difficult to enforce a policy requiring people to report multiple accounts, and it would be a bit unreasonable since people could always plausibly claim that they didn't know they were supposed to contact us.

    • CommentAuthorB.R.J.
    • CommentTimeApr 7th 2010
    I'm one of the people who is anonymous out of fear of asking a stupid question and embarrassing myself. There's really no way I'd have the courage to post a question or attempt an answer with my real name attached. I think Mathoverflow is great for providing shy people an opportunity to ask about things.

    @B.R.J.: I completely agree with you. I feel exactly the same way.

    • CommentAuthorAndrea
    • CommentTimeApr 7th 2010

    I'm one of the people who use their real name AND ask stupid questions... did I get something wrong? :-D

    But anyway, I understand that someone msy not want other people to read stupid questions with their real name attached.


    It does take a little bit of enlightenment to accept the fact that all questions display the ignorance of the asker. That's also why some students are afraid to ask questions in class. I don't think we'll be able to fix this problem on MO...

    Not asking a dumb question is usually worse than the alternative.
    Multiple accounts. That reminds me of the opposite... a hundred users called "unknown (google)", each with one post.
    Coincidentally, I note that Ohio State has just issued some guidelines for use of social-networking and blogging in connection with coursework. One of their suggestions is that students should *always* use pseudonyms on such sites that are accessible by Internet from the outside.

    I went back to using my real name because apparently everyone in the mathematical community already knows the true identity of the user fpqc, so it seemed a bit silly to continue acting like anyonymity was helping me at all.

    • CommentAuthorMark Meckes
    • CommentTimeApr 14th 2010 edited
    @geraldedgar: That's interesting. Do they state the rationale for that recommendation?
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeApr 14th 2010 edited


    OSU Cloud Computing Guidelines are found here

    Under *Tips for Instructors* note ... "Always require students to use aliases"

    @Mark: From a university's perspective that seems like a natural thing to do. Students' opinions don't necessarily reflect those of the school, and no school would want to associate their name with, say, an activist blogger who says politically incorrect things.


    @Qiaochu: But that would motivate prohibiting students from stating what school they attend, no?


    If you use social networking and blogging in connection with coursework then I think stating the name of the course is inevitable, and that should lead back to the school. But maybe I misunderstand the nature of the guidelines Gerald is talking about. Gerald, do you have a source?


    Looking at the document Gerald links, I see two reasonable concerns, and one potentially reasonable one.

    (1) Internet web sites may simply have poor password security. For this reason, OSU does not want you to reuse your OSU login and password on other sites. Perfectly sensible, but good luck to them in trying to make it stick. Of course, this is only a reason to keep your password unique, not your login.

    (2) Cloud computing resources may not provide adequate privacy protection. For example, under the OSU guidelines, it would be unethical for me as a professor to keep my students' grades in a google spreadsheet. In a class where students are expected to evaluate and comment on each others work, it would be wrong for me to require them to do so through google documents. And, if I were running a bio-medical study, it would be highly unethical for me to keep patient records in the cloud. I agree with all of these, and I realize that I might not have thought about them, so it is good that OSU is making regulations.

    (3) Here is where it gets borderline to me: Should professors be able to require students to do work that will be visible to the public? Can I require my students to read and improve a Wikipedia article on number theory? Can a French course require students to translate public domain works which have not previously been rendered in English, and distribute their translations under a CC license? Can a performing arts course require students to upload their final projects to YouTube? OSU comes down hard against these ideas. "Remember that students, except in a limited number of circumstances, own their work.' and "Restrict online access to student content as much as possible within the context of your instructional goals. In general, coursework conducted online should always be restricted to members of the course." I can feel both sides of the argument here.

    In the context of that, OSU says that we should "Always require students to use aliases when creating accounts, particularly if access to student work is public." It seems to me that the intended scenario is that, if we are forcing the students to put themselves online, we should also protect them from harassment and future repercussions by requiring them to do so anonymously. In the context of requiring students to edit Wikipedia, for example, I could see this being reasonable, although I disagree with it.

    There is one very obvious issue which this document doesn't seem to address: Students creating original research. It is highly contrary to the norms of academia to publish anonymously, and highly contrary to the norms of undergraduate research programs to not attempt to publish the students' work. But many respected journals exist solely online. A possible answer is simply that the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics (where I published one of the articles from my undergraduate research work) is not online in the sense that OSU is thinking of. Another is that, under OSU policy, such programs can only be offered for pay, not for course credit.

    I don't think that the authors of the document were thinking at all about scenarios where students, on their own initiative and not as part of a course activity, participate on a website like this one. Of course, I am not affiliated with OSU, and there is always a risk that a policy will be enforced in a context the author's didn't envision.

    • CommentAuthorRegenbogen
    • CommentTimeApr 15th 2010 edited

    In the arts, lots of people publish under pseudonyms.

    In any case, if someone wants to be anonymous, it is not good to put pressure on him/her to reveal himself. Why stress out others unnecessarily to merely satisfy your curiosity? Some people are shy of the public eye. Let them be. What harm do they cause?

    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeApr 15th 2010 edited

    Regenbogen, why would you try to cast yourself as an objective third party in this discussion? You're trying to cast this argument as something in which you have no stake, but you are one of the primary beneficiaries of the current lax anonymity policy. It's embarrassing, really. Did you really think nobody would catch on to your little ruse?

    If you have reasons why you'd prefer to be anonymous, then state those reasons, but don't try to be the "great defender of anonymity" when you're not even willing to reveal your own identity. I mean, did you really think that was going to be a convincing argument?

    • CommentAuthorRegenbogen
    • CommentTimeApr 15th 2010 edited

    @Harry Gindi: I didn't pretend that I don't have any stake. I do have some stake, and I made that clear earlier. And that is precisely why I take part in this discussion.

    When I want to be anonymous, it is a priori clear that I can't even publicize the reasons why I want to be so. When there is a real need for anonymity, you can't even give hints to your identity. So, unfortunately, I can't tell you why, or anything that leads to who I am. Sorry.


    How about we discuss issues related to anonymity, and not speculate about the identities and motives of the people in the conversation?

    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeApr 15th 2010 edited

    @Regenbogen: I'm not convinced. I doubt that anyone will be able to tell who you are just by a description of your plight. It's not hard to deduce that you're another user on this site, but that is not your real name either. If you have a real argument and real circumstances, then you have to give reasons. If not, you're just repeating the same non-argument over and over again.

    @David: I'm not asking him to reveal his true identity. I'm asking him to present an argument instead of whining about how he needs to protect his identity at all costs. If he refuses, then he has nothing else to add here. He's given his opinion, and he doesn't need to keep repeating it. If he want to argue a position in a discussion between adults, he should be expected to present his case like an adult. That means that an argument is more than just orders "you should do this and you should do that to protect those who enjoy anonymity". I'm not saying that there is no argument to be made for anonymity, just that he's not making it.

    @Harry: You seem a bit tense. I recommend partaking in sort of calming illegal substance before logging onto meta -- it might improve your mood. I've heard tell that such things can be easily purchased in Ann Arbor...
    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeApr 15th 2010 edited

    I've heard tell that such things can be easily purchased in Ann Arbor...

    Are you serious? How could all of this crime be going on right under my nose without me ever suspecting it? =S

    David's point (2) as far as it applies to non-shared cloud records seems a little crazy to me. Surely Google's security is far far better than my personal computer's security, or the security of my wireless network, or whatever OSU's tech people have put in place to secure the official grades.

    I think the subpoint that one should be careful about allowing *students* access to official work and grades via say google spreadsheets, but the reason there is that *their parents are reasonably likely to have the opportunity to snoop around their kids google accounts*. I.e. the same reason you shouldn't email grades.

    What about all the schools that have switched to using Google Apps?

    • CommentAuthorBugs Bunny
    • CommentTimeJun 15th 2010
    If MO required real names, I would not join it. Call it self-preservation instinct: web has become an extremely dangerous place to be. After a certain incident I have decided for myself to use creative identities everywhere on the web, except my bank and my paypal account...
    • CommentAuthorMilinovich
    • CommentTimeJan 20th 2011
    After reading this discussion, I decided to stop posting anonymously and start using my real name.
    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeJan 21st 2011
    I am a somewhat frequent reader and occassional (anonymous) contributer to MO. (Yet, personally, I have no strong feelings about this.)
    Reading this thread, in particular, a (main?) reason given against ano/pseudonymity 'like to know who asked', I wonder why this is so important.

    While I can see (and agree) that sometimes it can be useful to see the background of the person asking to decide what type of answer would be most helpful [though it seems to me that often this is merely due to the fact that the question is not carefully formulated], I find the general wish to know who specifically asked surprising.
    (Possibly I am overinterpreting this comment.)

    Should't a question, in particular a mathematical one, be judged rather on its own merits (as opposed to the ones of the person asking)?

    @an_mo_user: first of all, after having scanned the thread again, I cannot find anyone who said this. Personally, I think the biggest reason to encourage the use of real names is that it encourages civility on everyone's part.

    But as long as we're talking about knowing who asked, for me the issue is social. Although we are all mathematicians, we are all probably also humans, and humans like to know who they're helping when they help someone. It would be nice, for example, to know who you're dealing with on MO in case you ever meet them at a conference later in life; that would be an opportunity to establish a connection. (I think I am going to meet a lot of people this way.)

    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeJan 21st 2011

    A remark in view of the argument that some people don't want their MO profiles to supplant their department homepages on Google: Thanks to using my real name on MathOverflow, I've finally surpassed Willie "Woo Woo" Wong, 1940's Chinese-American basketball star from the bay area, on search engines. I'm now just one New York photographer and one Chinese-Malay-Canadian artist shy of complete Google dominance. :)

    Yeah, for people with common names, any publicity is good publicity. :)

    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeJan 21st 2011
    If I counted correctly, In the 13th comment (the third of Bill Johnson):
    "Before I answer a question, I like to know who is asking it."
    Though, as said in my original comment, I might overinterpret this, and the remainder of Bill Johnsons comment suggests this to some extent.

    Also, when trying to locate a time-mark to give a pointer to the comment I meant, I only now noticed that this discussion is in fact very old, and not current. I saw it at the very top, as there was one but only one, recent addition, and did not look carefully.

    Thank you for your answer. And, sorry, for inadvertently resurecting an old discussion.

    I like to know who I'm talking to.

    Should't a question, in particular a mathematical one, be judged rather on its own merits (as opposed to the ones of the person asking)?

    I agree with the statement, but disagree with the conclusion: that the information as to who asked the question is irrelevant. It is extremely relevant. Not just for the reasons given above, namely that one day I might run in to them at a conference (maths is certainly a small world!) or that some outside-MO knowledge helps me frame my answer, but also because one of the reasons that I'm here is to interact with other mathematicians. I want to do that through the mathematics, but I definitely want to get to know other mathematicians through this website. So I want to be able to link questions together and answers as well, get to know who the experts in a particular field are, get to know what people are thinking about or interested in. I can give a variety of practical reasons for this, but ultimately it's because I want to know that I'm part of a bigger game than just me sitting in my office drawing bizarre diagrams on pieces of paper. It's probably a bit unusual of me, but I find names easier to remember than numbers, so I'll notice "Willie Wong" when I see it here, and on other websites, and if I see a paper by him on the arXiv it increases the chance that I'll download it (possibly not the chance that I'll actually read it ...). But after the 532nd "unknown (google)" I find my mind going a little blank.

    The Celts weren't completely wrong when they thought that names had power, but it's not power over someone, it's power with them.

    (It's late, and I'm getting philosophical, so I'll shut up before I say anything daft. Ooops, too late.)