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Suppose I am refereeing a paper and wish to remain anonymous as referee. Suppose I had trouble understanding some of the proofs in the paper and made a post on MathOverflow and received a very helpful answer, that in my opinion will be useful not just to me as a referee, but also to the author in order to improve their paper. It seems reasonable that when I point out the argument I received from MO I should acknowledge where I got it from. But in doing so I will need to point to my post, and therefore reveal my identity. Would it be appropriate in this scenario to make the MO post using an anonymous login, specially made just for that purpose? I would be interested in hearing what other ways to proceed may be.

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    $\begingroup$ Your suggestion to post using an anonymous account in such situation seems reasonable to me. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan Kohl Mod
    Jun 3 at 20:45
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    $\begingroup$ Ask me, will be happy to play sockpuppet for such occasion :) $\endgroup$ Jun 4 at 2:02
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    $\begingroup$ In this older post Dmitri Pavlov raised another issue related to refereeing: Privacy of software-generated links to questions and answers. $\endgroup$ Jun 4 at 4:19
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    $\begingroup$ You'll want to be careful to disclose contents from the paper on a public forum, as a referee you are bound to confidentiality; discussing with a colleague is permitted, a more public discussion is not. $\endgroup$ Jun 4 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Carlo Beenakker Yes your point is well made. The question in my post is general enough that only addresses a step in a proof involving standard and well-known facts, so I don't think it reveals much of the result itself. $\endgroup$
    – Valerio
    Jun 4 at 10:53
  • $\begingroup$ @StefanKohl, it's definitely an appropriate situation to use a sockpuppet account. The one caveat is that any references should be to the best answer and not to the question, lest one be accused of anonymously pointing directly to one's own item. $\endgroup$ Jun 4 at 13:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Carlo depending on whether the paper is already public, for instance on the arXiv. It's then perfectly natural for anyone interested in the paper to ask a specific question about a specific step if it'sunclear (though clearly not ok to just outright ask if the paper/theorem at hand is correct). $\endgroup$ Jun 5 at 4:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Valerio If the previous comment addressed to me was made by you - but from the other account - maybe it would be better to remove that comment, so that the connection between the two accounts is not visible here. (After all, if you want keep the comment, you can post it again from the main account.) $\endgroup$ Jun 5 at 4:30
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I don't think there is anything inappropriate about using alternate accounts to ask questions. I have asked many questions using alternate accounts over the years (for all kinds of reasons, e.g. shame at not knowing something basic!). As long as your different accounts don't interact (and especially don't vote for each other!), this does not violate any rule that I am aware of.

That being said, I think it is a little weird to initiate an anonymous online discussion of a paper you're refereeing. I'm not sure I would go so far as to say it is unethical, but it's definitely not standard practice, and I think that many editors would get annoyed at one of their referees doing it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your comments. Of course my question was hypothetical. I would not initiate a discussion on a paper I am refereeing, whether anonymously or not. $\endgroup$
    – Valerio
    Jun 4 at 21:33
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On my opinion, if you have a question on the paper that you referee, you may ask only the author. (You can hide your identity if you wish by passing your question through the editor.) A referee is not only anonymous but also is supposed to be confidential. Which means you are not supposed to discuss anything in the paper that you referee with the third parties, anonymously or not.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I would go quite this far. Several times when refereeing papers, I have asked colleagues/collaborators of mine for help understanding certain technical points. For many papers, there is no single person other than the author who deeply understands every input to the proofs! I don't think that you should do this in public, but for people whose discretion you trust it can be fine in the right circumstances. $\endgroup$ Jun 8 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ With preprints being readily available, I don't see a problem with referees discussing papers (discreetly) with others. I can imagine there being a problem if the preprint were not freely available though. Any mechanism that helps the referee understand more thoroughly whether an argument is correct or not, I think it is to be welcomed. $\endgroup$
    – Lucia
    Jun 9 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with both remarks. IF a preprint is available, of course one can discuss it with anyone. Discussion with a colleague you trust is different from a discussion n MO:-) $\endgroup$ Jun 9 at 4:30
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    $\begingroup$ An anonymous account on MO is anonymous only for ordinary users of MO. Moderators know your IP, email and so on. Thus by asking a question on MO violates the privacy of refereeing. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Sapir
    Jun 16 at 0:48
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkSapir: Whenever I make an anonymous post, I don't give a valid email address (the system only demands something, but you don't have to give a real email address if you don't register the account). And as long as you don't post from your university, it will be pretty hard to even figure out what city you're in from the IP address (at least if you're using a big network like e.g. Comcast). $\endgroup$ Jul 5 at 4:25
  • $\begingroup$ An IP address defines your location up to a few feet. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Sapir
    Jul 5 at 6:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark Sapir: Yes, but it would require a subpoena to figure out your location from your ip address. If the law got involved and really wanted to know who referred a paper, I assume they would just contact the journal. I doubt any journal would even argue with an order from a court to divulge a referee. $\endgroup$ Jul 6 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ @AndyPutman: The moderators (and some other people at SE) know the location of any poster in MO. You can ask the moderators on meta if you want to make sure. My journal would not disclose the identity of a referee with or without a court order. I am pretty sure Annals of Mathematics would not too. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Sapir
    Jul 6 at 0:07
  • $\begingroup$ I recall Tim Gowers once asked a question here about a certain topic that wasn't his speciality and then, lo and behold, he was later talking about a certain mathematician's work in that area, for they had just won the Abel prize. Tim was very careful to ask the question in a way that made it seem like a natural inquiry, not like he was giving away the Abel laureate in advance. Of course, he could later confess to doing this, since his lecture wasn't then a secret. $\endgroup$ Jul 6 at 13:00

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