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Should Healthy Debate publish anonymous blog posts?


Hello Healthy Debate community,

Since launching the opinions section two years ago, we have published over 200 blogs from a wide range of people, including patients, front-line practitioners and health system leaders. In that time, we have never published an anonymous blog.

Our current policy for publishing guest blogs specifically states that the author’s real name will be published. We do this because we believe that it fosters an open environment, which is key to what we’re trying to do with Healthy Debate. We strive to be as transparent as possible throughout the site, publicly posting information about our team, process and funding sources. We have felt that running anonymous blogs would run counter to our goal of being as open as possible.

However, some recent experiences are making us rethink this policy. We have encountered an increasing number of individuals who are unwilling to speak with us on the record. Our sense is that this is particularly the case in Alberta. In one recent case, a writer retracted a very thoughtful blog because we were unwilling to publish it anonymously, and the author was worried about suffering professionally for voicing a criticism of the provincial health care system; a criticism that we felt was balanced and is likely shared by many others.

These experiences have made us wonder whether it is time to accept anonymous blogs. We do occasionally quote from anonymous sources, and anonymous comments can be left on the site. We are beginning to think that anonymous blogs might therefore be a reasonable extension of these existing policies. However, we are also aware that allowing anonymous blogs could change the tone of the site, by making it a less transparent environment.

This is a question our editorial board is considering, and we have asked the Citizen’s Advisory Council for their input. In the meantime, we’d be very interesting in knowing what our community thinks.

Should we post anonymous blogs? If so, what policies should we have in place to ensure Healthy Debate remains as open and transparent as possible?

Jeremy Petch is the Opinions Editor of Healthy Debate

Should Healthy Debate publish anonymous blog posts?

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17 comments

  1. Pat Rich (@cmaer)

    The issue of anonymous online postings has been a topic of fairly active debate in the physician community. The consensus has been that anonymous postings are not appropriate for physicians wishing to engage in discussions online or on social media platforms.

    A good case can be made for those who wish to serve as “whistleblowers” for fradulent or inappropriate practises in health care and who fear retribution or loss of their jobs.

    However a better case can be made for having full transparency in online or social media discussions and that means identifying who is saying what.

  2. Alaina Cyr

    Although I understand the hesitation in posting anonymous content, I think it could be a great way to have a real, honest debate, provided some guidelines/rules exist in terms of what Healthy Debate accepts and publishes.

    I don’t see anything wrong with publishing an article as anonymous (or under a pseudonym) if the person is willing to provide readers with a general description of who they are and why they’re qualified to write such a topic, and that the author substantiates these claims with the Healthy Debate editorial team. In fact, as you mention in the article, providing the option for anonymous posting when the topic is particularly sensitive will fully allow this site to be what it is intended: a debate. When you only publish things people are willing to say publicly, it’s not much of a debate, is it? We all know how risk-adverse healthcare is!

    My husband (a music journalist) and I often talk about how frustrating it is that there’s a lack of real debate online. People are absolutely willing to publish glowing reviews, but some people go so far as to have “policies” against publishing anything negative. Critique is often mixed up with bullying or naysaying, and those brave enough to stand up often become alienated from their peers.

    I think if you start allowing anonymous posts on hot topics, it will start to make it OK to speak up and out. Without that safety of anonymity, everything will stay roses and butterflies.

  3. Rob Fraser MN RN

    In journalism someone has to own and take responsibility for the credibility of articles. Although I voted no against posting anonymous blogs, I am not against protecting sources – if the author and the editorial team are guaranteeing the credibility of the included information. Healthy Debate needs to be an place for open and credible dialogue. This is my input for how to get both.

  4. Paul Taylor

    Don’t publish blogs anonymously. Newspapers allowed comments from anonymous readers and it was a big mistake. There is no transparency. Who knows if the blogger has some hidden agenda. We need to live in an open society. Please keep it that way.

  5. An anonymous peon

    If one is well-established, wealthy, supported by a large organization, or cares nothing of consequences, then credited posts suffice.

    If one is in a position of less power, then one is taking a huge risk by posting something controversial, no matter how well-researched or appropriate it may be. Organizations have full rights to fire someone for bringing bad attention to them. These posters, should they want to post “something”, will generally stick to safe fluff pieces to get their names out there.

    Print journalism is attributed to whichever journalist produces the work, but journalists are paid to do as much, and are often rewarded for making the most sensational, controversial article possible. Medical professionals are rewarded for being obedient, and chided for voicing controversial opinions.

    Anonymous blog posts should be allowed.

  6. Jeremy Petch

    Thank you everyone for the feedback to date. A suggestion we received from our citizen advisory council was that we could publish posts with a “name withheld” note – we’d still require bloggers to tell us (Healthy Debate editors) their real names and positions, and make a case for why they don’t feel safe publishing under their own names – this would allow us to ensure some level of accountability for the posts that are on the site, while protecting those who are in a vulnerable position. We’d expect that these type of posts would be the exception, rather than the rule. It sounds like this approach might address at least some of the concerns that have been raised on both sides of the debate.

    • Patrick Steadman

      I still lean towards not allowing anonymous blog posts, though I support the use of anonymous sources because the final article’s statements can be held accountable to the journalist. On the other hand, a ‘name withheld’ is a reasonable compromise. I would ask that you, the editors, provide your reasoning for withholding the name in each case to be transparent with the reader. I would also ask that it is only allowed in rare cases where the original author’s risk of adverse outcomes is high.

    • Tania Mysak

      I was going to suggest that exact approach. I work for AHS and can certainly understand the reluctance to be critical of the organization in the public sphere. If the blogger can make the case to the editorial board that they have legitimate concerns about using their real name, “name withheld” could be an option to allow those opinions some air time. Otherwise, those ideas will remain in the shadows.

  7. Lisa

    Sounds like a very reasonable approach.

  8. Shawn Whatley

    Great question, Jeremy.

    In healthcare, “Those who know, can’t say.” I assume by anonymous posts you mean ‘moderated’ anonymous posts. Your editorial team would still control the content posted.

    As such, anonymous posting would allow you to get ideas out in the open without jeopardizing authors’ careers.

    I’m interested to see what you decide.

    http://www.shawnwhatley.com

  9. Will Falk

    I voted yes but this is not a straight yes or no question. Yes but only if two things are true:
    1) the writer is known to your editorial team. HealthyDebate is a strong enough brand that I would trust your judgment
    2) There should be a legitimate reason for anonymity. Your Alberta example is a good one

    Anonymous articles should be rare exceptions but permitted when warranted

    Wf

  10. Chris Houston (Twitter @chris_m_h)

    I’ve not voted yes or now because I am not sure. I have lots of mixed opions on it.

    On one hand, I think people need to have the courage to stand up for what they believe in. I think Canada needs a little more of that. On the other hand I speak from the luxury of being able to do so. And I also chose not to give my first name when I first commented on this site.

    On the other hand, I support mechanisms that enable whistle blowing. Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden did what they did for the public good. If a health care practitioner needed a mechanism to do that, and this blog provided a space to do so, that would be a good thing.

    And then I look at print media – do they permit anonymous sources – well, I think they tend to do so, but not as lead authors of articles, but as sources for journalist to write articles. So someone puts their name to an article, but cites anonymous sources and explains why.

    And finally, democracy is a fine system, but it’s your blog and your decision. Good luck with it.

  11. Penny Christensen

    In a perfect world anonymous posting would not be necessary but there are many instances where people are reluctant to expose themselves because of a justifiable fear of stigma, humiliation and bullying. There is also an enormous amount of reluctance among health care workers to speak honestly for fear of negative career repercussions. Allowing anonymous posts gives a safe venue for these important voices to be heard. I think as long as you can guarantee anonymity, the author identifies to your editor (and you can verify their credentials) anonymous posts could be invaluable.

  12. Laith Bustani

    If you have the editorial wherewithal to judge the source as credible and there is legitimate potential of harm to the source, I would personally rather hear the first hand account of what is happening than enforce publishing the authors name.

  13. Tina Nguyen (@tinahvtnguyen)

    I think there should be a balance of anonymous and those that do wish to share their names. But, be strict with the number of anonymous posts. I’m afraid with too many of them will decrease the quality and reliability of the overall blog.

  14. Linda Murphy

    I sincerely regret hearing that a health professional felt so strongly that s/he needed to remain anonymous to post a blog criticizing elements of the health system in their jurisdiction and subsequently withdrew their submission as a result of your current policy.

    Your site is valuable because of the excellent editorial work done to ensure a strong knowledge base for articles and commentary to mediate/ balance views. I am not a fan of sites that permit anonymous postings as they seem to encourage extreme, misleading and/or false statements to be submitted – the ‘discussion’ too often degenerates quickly and turns off (at least this) reader.

    I hope that more readers will take the time to comment as I feel it would be useful for the council (indeed, all of us) to ‘hear’ the debate.

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