My questions is whether there is a good reason to allow anonymous users in a site dedicated to research-level mathematics. In theory, most users of this site are professional mathematicians and graduate students. In practice, I'm not so sure. The amount of ill-posed questions, homework problems, or just plain nonsense that is periodically closed, but which nevertheless clutters the site, suggests there is a substantial number of other people who use MO.

In my view anonymity poses a number of problems:

  1. We freely share ideas on this site and the mathematical conversations that take place in MO sometimes find their way to publications. It is one thing to say "the proof of this lemma was worked out in an MO conversation with name-lastname" than to say "the proof of this lemma was worked out in an MO conversation with Bullwinkle101". I actually have to do this in a paper I'm writing right now.

  2. I have not done any serious statistics, but it seems to me bad questions have been driving the good ones out for some time.

  3. It is easier to be nasty as an anonymous user.

  4. Sometimes good mathematicians ask or say dumb things (as mathematicians, else the statement is truly obvious). There is no need to hide this. Actually, I think it is BAD to hide this. As a "guild" we believe too much in our own mythology.

  5. If one takes a look at the first three or five pages of users ranked by "reputation" the number of anonymous users is propotionately very low and the proportion increases sharply as the reputation decreases. This suggests the question: what sort of users does MO wish to have?

Now, as a matter of principle, I think restricting access (to whatever) is not usually a good idea or, at the very least, has to be done intelligently. ArXiv has managed to do this nicely. In fact, if for a second we think of anonymous postings in ArXiv by whoever has an internet access and an interest for mathematics, we see that it could not be the useful research tool that it is today.

Thanks to all who answered this question or commented on it. I now see that there are some valid reasons to participate anonymously and that there are other or better ways to deal with some the issues raised in this question.

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    So, looking at 1, an anonymous user told you something quite useful and thus you want to ban them...?! – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 10:51
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    I agree that there are very good merits to recommending people that they use their real names. But to outright forbid anonymous names sounds ridiculous. If @quid would have used the name John Derbysmith, could you immediately tell he is anonymous? What if he would have used "Asaf Karagila"? Can you verify he is misusing my name? I do agree that it might be reasonable to require moderators to use their real names (or at least have them on the profile). – Asaf Karagila Oct 30 '13 at 11:32
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    @Quid: your remark illustrates point 2 quite nicely. Thanks! The person in question is a professional mathematician and if anonymity had not been a choice, I believe he would have joined anyway. – alvarezpaiva Oct 30 '13 at 11:50
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    @Asaf: I should have defined an anonymous user as one with no link to his professional website. – alvarezpaiva Oct 30 '13 at 11:51
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    @alvarezpaiva if this is like this, simply asked them to change their displayname or provide that link. If they are not willing to do this, maybe your believe is not that sound. Also why does it illustrate 2? What seems to happen in my opinion is that you seem somehow annoyed by this situation in 1. and thus you start a debate on the matter. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 11:55
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    @Quid: I meant 3, sorry about that. Anonymity encourages a lot of "smart-aleking". Actually, I'm more worried about the good people leaving. My impression is that I meet them less often than a I did a year ago and I know other people who also have this impression. In the words of one of them "MO is the victim of its own success". I think MO is really a great tool, and it would be a pity to see it disappear or turn into something useless. But perhaps someone will start a more ArXiv-like site. The experiment would settle our discussion. – alvarezpaiva Oct 30 '13 at 12:38
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    Okay, (at least abstractly) this makes more sense. Though I am pretty sure I'd say same thing under my realname and various people around here would have said comparable things. Also your intitial reply to it perhaps is in the same category ;-) Actually, I think in some ways I am nicer on this site than I would be if under my realname. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 13:00
  • The experiment would not really settle the dicussion, since you are still not quite clear what you actually propose. The distinction you stress now is one I would describe as 'open to all' vs 'restricted' (not 'allowing anon' vs real-names). As said one could allow essentially anon contrib to a restricted site too (after some confidential signup). And also various of the lesser question that get asked, and often those leading to more controversy, do get asked by people under thir realname. The copied HW by userxyz is closed quickly and not that much of an issue in the end. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 13:03
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    @alvarezpaiva, re 1: did you ask the pseudonymous user for how (and if) to acknowledge them in your paper? For example, it could be that the user prefers to be pseudonymous on MO, but might agree to seeing their real name in the acknowledgements of a paper. – Tobias Fritz Oct 30 '13 at 13:07
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    @TobiasFritz: Of course, I asked. Note that if no email address or professional website is furnished then the only thing you can do to contact the colleague in question is to write a comment. I don't always read all comments that people leave: it really depends on how busy I am at the moment. Unfortunately, I numbered this point first, but it is not the main point: I can always write in the paper "this proof was worked out in a conversation around the MO question \http.etc.etc.". – alvarezpaiva Oct 30 '13 at 14:28
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    Often, our users feel offended when their questions are closed. That feeling of offense may be increased if those voting to close have names like "Superman" and "Albert Einstein"... – Gerald Edgar Oct 30 '13 at 15:32
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    @GeraldEdgar it may be (without any irony) for some, and we had this discussion long ago (on the initiative of Gil Kalai). But it also may be for some others that they have a particular problem if somebody they know (at least by name) and perhaps respect closes their question. Or it may be they have a particular problem if a student closes their question. Or still something else. In any case if somebody has such a problem their question is close by an anon they might consider to introspect why this is the case and perhaps the outcome could be interesting. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 23:07
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    If it had not been for @quid, I would be a weaker Scrabble player ("A wad of something chewable as tobacco"). – Joseph O'Rourke Nov 3 '13 at 1:51
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    I don't agree that you have to write "the proof of this lemma was worked out in an MO conversation with Bullwinkle101". If the user has chosen not to use their real name, I am not convinced you are obligated to give them a call-out via the pseudonym. You could instead simply write "in a conversation on MathOverflow.net", while also seeing whether you can contact them to obtain their professional name. – Carl Mummert Nov 12 '13 at 16:43
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    @CarlMummert. Yes, that's what I said in the comments. This question is already impossible to follow due to their lengths. – alvarezpaiva Nov 12 '13 at 18:12

11 Answers 11

Here is a past discussion on pseudonyms from MO.1 days: http://mathoverflow.tqft.net/discussion/335/1/why-not-real-names/. I think most of the arguments (pro or con) would still apply to MO.2. (This find is based on a quick google search, but I think there may have been more discussions. Please feel free to edit this answer if you find more.)

Women have often reported very negative experiences posting under their real names, for a variety of reasons. This is touched upon here: http://mathoverflow.tqft.net/discussion/985/. This alone seems to be a serious trump card in favor of allowing pseudonyms. And it's not just women: many people have had very unpleasant experiences posting under real names (again for various reasons); I believe their needs should be respected.

(I say all this despite the fact that I much prefer interacting with someone who uses his/her real name: I might have the pleasure of meeting them some day, or I might want to cite them, or maybe even work with them on something, and so on.)

User alvarezpaiva (whom I know btw as "JC" or Juan-Carlos, from grad school days) has made some very good points in support of strongly encouraging the use of real names, but disallowing pseudonyms I really can't get behind.

Last point: my own impression is that the rise of questions unsuited for MO is more accurately explained by the merger into the StackExchange network than it is by usage of pseudonyms. Some interesting reading material, with graphs, can be found here: Has the switch to SE 2.0 increased the rate of low-level / inappropriate questions?

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    Thanks for the info Todd. The truth is that I was rather mystified by the choice of anonymity. I use MO as people use coffee hour or tea time at a math department: to get my head out of the office and share some of the things that puzzle me hoping that by just having to express my doubts, they will become clearer. Communicating with anonymous colleagues is then a bit awkward. Last time I talked to someone with a mask I was 7 and he was dressed as Mickey Mouse ;-) But now I see there's some point to it. – alvarezpaiva Oct 30 '13 at 15:35

Here is a reason (in fact, its my main reason), why I decided to become an anonymous user:

I don't want every single one of my words on this forum to be archived for the rest of my life. This does not mean that I am saying things here that I would not say under my real name. It simply means that I don't want everybody to be able to google all these words in 5 years, in 10 years and even in 20 years.

In the same way, I would not like to have a transcript of every research conversation at work be printed and put on the black board of my university for the next 10 years. I simply don't like the idea of everybody (no matter who) being able to find all the stuff on the web that I said many years ago.

If the rules of the site would change in a way that they would require me to give up anonymity, I would simply stop using the site.

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    Are you equally careful when using email? There is no security there, and not only in the transmission. If you work at a typical State university in the USA, all of your emails are subject to freedom of information inquiries. – Bill Johnson Nov 2 '13 at 14:53
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    @Niemi: I can appreciate that too. Bill's comment underlines that we have little privacy to start with. – alvarezpaiva Nov 2 '13 at 15:03
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    And even if you don't work for a state institution, your work email is probably subject to any inquiry your employer chooses to make or cooperate with. – Mark Meckes Nov 2 '13 at 15:05
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    @Bill. What you point out is interesting (I do not work in the Sates, though), but I hope its not meant as a counterargument to what I said. Just because there is lack of privacy in one area does not mean that I willingly give it up everywhere. – Niemi Nov 2 '13 at 15:16
  • There's also a difference between "not anonymous" as in "available to people who are specifically given the authority to view the content" (as with (especially work) e-mails) and "not anonymous" as in "available to everyone" (as with posts on MO or the arXiv). – LSpice Jul 18 at 12:33

I am a professional mathematician posting pseudonymously and I think I would prefer to do that rather than post under my real name. There are a couple of reasons why I like this:

People have sometimes wondered about double blind refereeing, and whether that would lead to better quality control of papers. This is difficult in real life since people know about the paper from arxiv, talks etc. But MO does offer a good way of testing this (at least until one's reputation increases) -- for pseudonymous users the readers are forced to evaluate the answers/questions at face value, while this is not always the case when the real identity is known.

Secondly, sometimes people on MO (anonymous or not) ask questions that they don't understand, or don't understand the answers given, or don't engage with the problem themselves fully. If I were to post under my real name, I think I would feel somewhat irritated by this; posting pseudonymously, I find this more amusing than irritating. This of course is just a personal quirk!

Here's a third possible reason. People on MO have lamented about the lack of women here. Part of this problem may be perception -- women might feel there are few women on the site to start with, men may make unconscious assumptions on whom they are communicating with etc. If there were many pseudonymous users with obviously female names, I wonder if anything will change.

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    Your second point is IMO a reason to require identity disclosure. – Bill Johnson Oct 30 '13 at 14:30
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    These days I pretty much ignore posts by userxxxxx. – Bill Johnson Oct 30 '13 at 14:33
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    Thanks Lucia. This sheds some light on the matter. – alvarezpaiva Oct 30 '13 at 14:36
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    @BillJohnson this might be different in different tags and for different people, but Lucia and I share the same 'main' tag (nt.number-theory) and this second point is something I feel too. I cannot know if we mean the same thing, but for me this is really not mainly about userxxxxx and also not about homework or alike. If only they would ask a decent homework question, but no, all kinds of people share some conjecture, speculation, idle courosity presented without having appropriate background. It's fun and it's annoying, it depends how one approaches the thing. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 23:26
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    I just saw this. I was searching the web yesterday for a mathematician called Lucia something that could be you... Very convincing answer, by the way. At my beginnings on this site, I opted for a semi-anonymity by giving just my first name, for reasons close to your first reason. Only one year after I put (a link to) my full name. – Joël Nov 2 '13 at 23:59
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    By the way -- I don't think that Lucia is an "obviously female name". -- On Zentralblatt MATH one finds the following presumably male mathematicians who have Lucia as their last name: Alfredo C. Lucia, Angelo Lucia, David J. Lucia, Julio J. Lucia, Marcello Lucia, Umberto Lucia. – Stefan Kohl Nov 13 '13 at 17:51
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    See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucia_(name) – Lucia Nov 14 '13 at 0:17

The atmosphere on our site should be pleasant and welcoming to make it possible for people to use their full and real names comfortably, but, MO should be also open for users who choose to be anonymous. I see no problem with anonymous users posing questions and answers, making comments and editing. They can fully take part in up votes and down votes but here I will make the rule that participants cannot vote on a single item in more than one identity.

Participants in general, anonymous or not, should be careful to make the site welcoming and pleasant. Of course, in the course of professional activity, you need (in MO and eslewhere) to question the validity of a mathematical claim, to question the quality of some contribution, to criticize the behavior of another person, to make a controversial opinion, etc. This can sometimes be unpleasant, and part of our work is to carefully try to do it in the best way.

It is correct that people who participate in their full name "risk" in some (small) way their "real-life" reputation. But there is also the flip-side that full-name participants also rely in a (small) way on their "real-life" reputation and "real-life" support from their community. So one insight I reached (recently) is that I should react and respond precisely the same to full name users and to annonymous users.

When it comes to administering the site. It is of value to have accountability and tnasperancy for decisions on MO. Anonymous users who have clear identity on the site achieve it only partially. We had a discussion if to allow anonymous users close/open questions and the clear majority of opinions was to allow it. When it comes to moderators, I would prefer that the site officers are not anonymous.

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    Speaking of real-life support: I believe I take questions slightly more seriously when they are asked by something that looks like a real name, and slightly less when they are asked by an obvious pseudonym. – Carl Mummert Nov 12 '13 at 16:47

For your main question I think in 1. you gave an answer yourself. You should very seriously consider the idea that the alternative would not have been that you got the same information under a real name but rather that you just did not get it at all. There are some that likely are professional mathematicians or at least contribute content that is conisdered of some value that just will not use the site under their real name.

Now, point by point.

re 1. Would you have prefered you would not have gotten the information at all? Also, a precise person might feel the need to quote you on MO also mentioning your display name, so 'alvarezpaiva', this is also sort of inconvenient. Maybe change that to the name as it apppears on you publications; you do not signe your papers with 'alvarezpaiva' I assume.

re 2. This seems a bit orthogonal to the issue at hand. Certainly it could help in avoiding poor question to have some stricter sign-up process that involves some identification, but this would change the nature of the site. In addition it would be possible to do this while still allowing (essentially) anonymous and pseudonymous contributions. Enforcing real names in some vague way as done now, seems rather irrelevant.

re 3. Maybe it is easier once. But other than that (some) people under their real name get away with a lot more nastiness than an anonymous user ever would. One is a second or rather third class citizen here if not under ones realname, as is clearly said in the FAQs, and this is quite noticeable.

re 4. Is there a shortage of "dump questions" getting asked also by people under their realname? Conversely, it is perhaps also of value to see that some anonymous users can make valuable contributions. As a mild counter to the too wide spread habit of judging mathematics also based on who wrote it. (In math it is rather not that bad I think, but still it happens and is bad, IMO.)

re 5. So what? Of course some anon users are throw-away accounts. In addition there is or at least used to be quite a bit of pressure on people to use their realnames. Leaving things alone and letting people just decide on their own, I believe there would be more among regular users not under their realnames.

For arXiv, it is quite different than this site being a lot "slower" and also not being dedicated to creating new content but, well, archiving it.

Moreoever, you shold make clear what you actually proposed. Do you want to restrict the site to in some sense professional mathematicians only. What would that sense be precsiely?

Finally, it should be recalled that there is a long and ongoing tradition of anonymous contributions to research mathematics. Say, who exactly is Bourbaki at the moment? Some know in full and some more in part, but AFAIK it is rather secret.

  • First, let us distinguish anonymity from using your real name as login name. Probably we disagree on the cost of not having anonymous users. I myself cannot see the advantage of being an anonymous user, but I would be interested in hearing your point of view. Why are are you an anonymous user and why would you not consider making use of MO under the condition of giving your real name ? Some points of yours I agree with (too much math is indeed based on name-recognition), so perhaps I'm missing some key argument in the advantanges of anonymity. – alvarezpaiva Oct 30 '13 at 12:07
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    Agreed we can take 'anonymous' to mean 'not providing identifying information on the userpage'. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 12:30
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    There are many reasons for preferring to be anon. A strong one is this from the FAQs: 'We also encourage you to use your real name as your username. In your own enlightened self-interest, realise that participating in blogs, MathOverflow, the arXiv, and mathematical publishing are all forms of advertising for your "brand", [...]' Somebody might believe this and assume I am here to advertise my "brand" this is a deeply unsettling idea. This likley depends on culture and personality but to me to tell an academic that they do something to advertise their "brand" is about one of the worst insults. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 12:30
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    A more practical one is that I do want to keep MO separate from my the rest of my (work) life. I really have no interest in one more additional 'professional' thing to do. Well I am here a lot, but I can turn the site off completely at any moment, and thus it is a nice and useful distratcion but not an additional commitment. If I just do not visit it, it is gone completly. If I were to use it under my real name, and might get emails about it to my regular address and so on this would stop being the case. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 12:34
  • There are several others, but as just yesterday somebody complained about my wordiness I will leave it at these two for the moment. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 12:38
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    The brand idea is indeed a bit unsettling and is a good point I had not thought about. However, if you count publication as selling a brand instead of just plain work, then everything we do is brand advertisement. BTW, I don't think you'll get many messages from MO users. I've gotten two so far in over a year and the whole system priviledges interaction within MO (there are no points for neat messages). Thanks for your input, I see things are a lot more compex than I had thought at the beginning. – alvarezpaiva Oct 30 '13 at 15:27
  • @alvarezpaiva you are welcome. For the brand, yes one could frame it like this and this is somehow the idea of the text, but then I'd also not publish in a journal that puts on display that I better publish in this journal to advertise my brand or otherwise makes a big deal about publishing there is a really good idea for purpose of me promoting myself. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 23:43
  • For the emails, admittedly this is mainly a psychological thing not that I expect to get tons of emails. (Though I think, unfortunately, I got somehow pretty visible on this site, so it is not so clear. If you had the experince that somebody asks a question on main for the sole purpose of complaining about your close votes and inquiring about you, getting a couple of upvotes, you might start asking yourself what else such users might do.) – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 23:50
  • @quid: I guess that all the number theorists who view MO regularly know your real name and that I could also easily find out if I cared to. – Bill Johnson Nov 2 '13 at 14:57
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    I welcome the emails I have gotten from my MO participation. One led to a joint paper and another pointed to some interesting papers and background. Others have questions that I could easily answer and the asker appreciated the information. None have been outright spam. – Bill Johnson Nov 2 '13 at 15:01
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    @BillJohnson: I'm a number theorist who views MO regularly and I don't know who quid is. It has been a source of speculation among some number theorists I know, but I don't think anyone had a good idea -- it's a big world! Also, this was just idle curiosity, and most of the number theorists I know were happy to respect quid's privacy. – Lucia Nov 2 '13 at 15:21
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    Quid, in the three years I participate on MO I got perhaps 3-5 emails regarding it (which were welcome). I also turn off (or almost so) from MO for a few months. So I don't think these are strong reasons to be anonymous, but as I said I regard choosing anonimity as ok. – Gil Kalai Nov 2 '13 at 18:58
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    For the emails and related, thanks to everybody for the infos, but on the one hand as I admitted likely this is mainly psychological. But, somehow I find it a lot more fun to write an MO answer than, say, write a review for MathSciNet, though it sometimes not that different (for certain questions). I do feel that my pseudonymity plays a role here for me. On the other hand, it is known that some users had some problems with unwanted emails, some minor some a bit more major (or at least that was my impression from what transpired to meta). – user9072 Nov 2 '13 at 22:18
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    For some perhaps knowing (or at least having a good guess or being able to get one if they cared) who I am: yes I am not blind to this. And, I haven't much problem with somebody that follows my activity on this site in some detail being able to infer something about me. But, an idea I do not like so much, closely along the lines of what Niemi answered, is that it is somehow generally known and thus all over, and on each and every text-snippet that somebody might see. Since taken somehow out of context and in written form, things can come across very differently than intended. – user9072 Nov 2 '13 at 22:44
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    @Quid: when you talked about brand name I thought you were exagerating, but recently I had an experience that made me really think about it: a series of Spanish math books was republished in French, the names of the authors does not appear in the cover of the books (front nor back), where it is nevertheless mentioned that this series was "selected" by a Fields medalist. Since I was a bit shocked I tried to find out: I was told by a reliable source that the Fields medalist objected, but the publisher would not hear of it. – alvarezpaiva Nov 6 '13 at 15:39

I guess as long as the user contributes interesting and useful stuff, it is his choice what name to post under (provided it is unique; throngs of indistinguishable unknown-google's irritated me quite a bit too) and if he posts junk, using real name will not make it any better (if you read "general mathematics" section on arXiv, you'll see that if somebody really has a desire to post gibberish, he'll do it no matter what).

As to who is currently using MO for posting questions, I do not know. In principle anybody with sufficient courage and internet connection can do it and I do not see why any change to this policy will result in a better general atmosphere. However, if you look at those who answer, the portion of patented junk is very low (we all can make stupid mistakes, of course) and there is no correlation between the quality of the answers and using the real name.

At last, how can you tell that Ken Souza is not my real name? Do you suggest that everybody should also list their affiliations or something else to make the names verifiable?

  • No, I'm really not for verification and all that and the post is not really about what people should do, but about finding out what they think and whether they have thought on the cost and advantages of anonymity. BTW, I have to admit that browsing at the GM section of ArXiv brings a smile every time. – alvarezpaiva Oct 30 '13 at 15:54
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    If I have a real suggestion it would be to allow the posting of questions only to those how have 20 or more points. That would probably get rid of the a large proportion of nonsense questions. – alvarezpaiva Oct 30 '13 at 15:56
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    I like the suggestion on questions -- certainly bad questions seem to be much more of a problem than bad answers. – Lucia Oct 30 '13 at 19:09
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    I served with Ken Souza. I knew Ken Souza. Ken Souza was a friend of mine. fedja, you're no Ken Souza. youtube.com/watch?v=JFujxTVbTzY – Will Jagy Oct 30 '13 at 20:21
  • Note: I am hoping that there is not a real Ken Souza whom I have now indicated is dead. – Will Jagy Oct 30 '13 at 22:56
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    @alvarezpaiva this was suggested some time ago already. And an issue I see is that it might block legitimate use. While I obviously did not start out this way, a quite likely way in my mind to start actively using MO is to at some point have a question and think 'hey, why not give it a try on that MO site I heard about/I sometimes read' And if you then let people jump through too many loops they just will not ask it. – user9072 Oct 30 '13 at 23:13
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    @Will Jagy " I am hoping that there is not a real Ken Souza whom I have now indicated is dead" It's Halloween, remember, so I would not be that sure this time of year :-) – fedja Oct 31 '13 at 3:24

I post under my real name because I don't mind making an idiot out of myself in public every so often. Having said that, there are different reasons why one may want to post anonymously, some of them quite valid. I think encouraging real names can be useful, but I don't think we should be banning Bourbaki from MO. Then again, in this case maybe we should :)

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    I also post under my real name for this reason and at least I get to think twice before posting (most of the time). – alvarezpaiva Nov 12 '13 at 19:58

If my supervisor had written a great answer under his real name, I would have spent days and nights on answering each and every question I am able to answer. Then, after earning enough reputation, I would have come to him and said:

"You see, according to professional mathematicians I'm more reputable than you..."

"So now, YOU LISTEN ME!"

I can imagine, that this is the reason why he will never post anything under his real name.

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    That was funny! Maybe some people take MO too seriously ... Personnally, I think there should be no points and that the word "reputation" was a bad choice. "Likes", Facebook-style are more appropriate. – alvarezpaiva Nov 6 '13 at 15:34

Quite interesting question : as a recent user of MO, under the pseudo "Smaug", I'm not presently perfectly aware of all the guidelines and "good behaviour" rules.

For me, MO is a quite nice meeting spot, due to the variety of its content,the easy and informal way of asking and answering, and, above all, the evident courtesy of most (but not all...) of its members. So, why do I use this stupid pseudo of "Smaug, Dragon-King under the Mountain" instead of my equally stupid real name ("Jean-Marc Patin, undergrad math teacher in Nantes University, south of Brittany, France) ?

For a quite simple reason : it helps me not to take myself too seriously and not to make too much of my mathematical preoccupations.

I've got absolutely no interest in "advertising my brand", it should be clear that I'm a somewhat real person (even if I've sometimes got nagging doubts about it), I definitely do not consider myself as a mathematician (while beeing aware that most MO members are true ones), but I'm quite proud to be a math teacher, and I fail to see what damage can be done by my (possibly stupid) questions and my (possibly dumb) answers. So I do believe that returning to the (relative) anonymity of "Smaug" is harmless, and certainly not offensive.

After all, "Anonymity", "Courtesy", and "Pertinence" are probably three independant random variables...

Sincerely Yours.

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    When I posed the question I had not realized there were good reasons for participating anonymously. On the other hand, if this is to be a question and answer site for professional mathematicians (and this is how this site defines itself), a high ratio of naive, poorly posed questions can be a problem because having to pick the good needles from the huge haystack will discourage participation from the people who make this site worthwhile. I still think that anonymity encourages sloppiness and not thinking before interacting, but I can understand that it is a price to pay for other benefits. – alvarezpaiva Apr 17 '14 at 12:29
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    @alvarezpaiva : I thank you for your considerate answer, and must say that I truly understand your point of view. What is not absolutely crystal clear (at least for me) is "what is exactly a professional mathematician" : at least a PhD student ? someone who has a non-empty publication list ? anybody who correctly uses non-trivial theorems in his work, even if this work is rather far away from mainstream mathematics ? any mathematical teacher ...? Moreover, I've got the feeling that MO is a free society where everyboby can let any worthless question, comment or answer die silently undisturbed. – user45639 Apr 17 '14 at 13:04
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    Smaug, I guess a professional mathematician is like a professional poet: he or she must, from time to time, publish his work and thus submit it to public scrutiny, and these publications have a certain impact in the way he or she makes a living. I have to say that I'm quite happy to share this space with people who just like mathematics or studied it at some point. I was just wondering if there were good reasons to participate anonymously. – alvarezpaiva Apr 17 '14 at 14:24
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    @Smaug, for an example of a "free society" of the type in your comment, look at the (formerly USENET newsgroup) sci.math. The quality there has deteriorated because of the lack of self-moderation. This is a (partly community-) moderated forum with goals for a specific audience, and with a willingness to share the results with a broader public. The quality is maintained only by constant vigilance: give good content, and (mostly) we don't care if you are dog or dragon. Bad content, and you are discouraged regardless of handle. Gerhard "Always Looking For Good Content" Paseman, 2014.04.17. – Gerhard Paseman Apr 17 '14 at 18:35
  • @alvarezpaiva : yes, you're wonderfully right, I do believe professional mathematicians ARE professionnal poets in a singular way, but, (even if it is a bit beside the point), I'm not really convinced by your remark on publications: Fernando PESSOA and Emily DICKINSON were two of the greatest poets of all time, and they never published anything in their lifetime (please, DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND ME : I EVIDENTLY DO NOT COMPARE MYSELF (or my smaug-worm-self) WITH THESE TWO ABSOLUTE GENIUSES, who, in their fied, were in the "Gromov-Perelman-Tao-Bombieri-Ramanujan-Euler-Gauss-Grthendieck" class...). – user45639 Apr 18 '14 at 7:47
  • @GerhardPaseman : Well, dear Gerhard "Great-Chief-On-The-Trail Of-Perfect-Content" Paseman (no harm intended..., BTW, speaking of good content, I'm truly amazed and flabbergasted by the maths on Paul Garrett's homepage... When does he sleep ?), you're not alone in this wild-goose chase. "Always-Looking-For-Perfect-Content-And-Feeding-Grundging-Students-With-It-And-Not-Beeing-Dispirited-By-Mathematical-Garbage-We-Encounter-Here-And-There" is a truly wonderful description of our common everyday job. Sincerely yours, Jean-Marc "Quite-Wrongly-Impersonating-The-Stupid-Dragon-King-Smaug" Patin. – user45639 Apr 18 '14 at 8:21
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    What happened to this "Smaug" fellow, anyway? – SamB Dec 19 '14 at 22:14

We've had questions before about anonymity and at the time there was nothing we could do about it because we were on MO 1.0. I wasn't sure of the correct approach at the time. I felt grad students would be more likely to use the site anonymously at the start, then put their full name once they realized it wouldn't hurt their careers (I was in this boat). I remember also a story about someone from a country where they could get in trouble for being on MO, and again there anonymity seems beneficial.

However, I agree strongly with point 2 and I think it's the biggest issue the website is currently facing. Let me propose a compromise which is really a sketch and would need other ideas to implement well. When I teach and I want access to the solution manual, the textbook company verifies that I'm actually listed as an instructor at my institution. What if we required a similar verification for when users first joined MO?

For example, you could be verified by giving a link to your math genealogy page, to the department page where you're listed as a grad student, to a conference where you presented a talk/paper, etc. For someone who is a talented undergrad, they probably have a mentor, and an email from the mentor could suffice. All this could be automated: just have a program check whether the name given appears on the page linked or in the email. Once the user is verified they can pick whatever username they want. There are options for whether or not the moderators get to know the real names (I'm in favor of this, but it wouldn't be too for the automated system to hide this information). Certainly people can game the system if they really want to, but that's a lot of effort to go through to get help on your homework, and I think it would drive away many questions that don't belong.

The verifications above seem to cover most users I care about, but let me know if I forgot some. It's conceivable that there are some good hobbyists who don't have a degree, but they probably still have a mentor of some kind who could vouch. For people in developing countries the situation is a bit harder, but again having someone vouch for them might be enough to weed out those who have real research questions from people like TrustGod. It won't be perfect, but perhaps there's the nugget of a good idea in here.

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    Any kind of verification could be a problem for a user from a country where they could get in trouble, since the country might be intercepting the verification process. Can't see many countries being worried about MO, though! – Alexander Pruss Oct 31 '13 at 19:38
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    I think there is an egalitarian ethos to mathematics: What you can do matters more than titles (disclaimer: my doctorate is from a different field). – Michael Greinecker Nov 3 '13 at 23:58

So, what's a "real name"? Something that looks like a real name? Something that looks like a real name to Americans? Something which falls neatly into two parts, the first one gendered, neither of which contain any non-ASCII characters?

GooglePlus had a lot of well-deserved fallout over their "real names" policy, and I'd prefer not to see Stack Exchange engage in any similar idiocy.

And that's Timothy Richard Green to you, thank you.

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    Relax, Timothy. There are no plans to institute any such policy (as should be clear from the discussion here, it is agreed that people can have good reasons for employing pseudonyms). – Todd Trimble Nov 24 '13 at 0:59
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    Definition: "a real name" is a link to the professional webpage of the person who is posting. – alvarezpaiva Nov 25 '13 at 7:21

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