Anonymity, Confidentiality, Transparency: Which to Choose?

 

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Last May, an article in the newspaper Le Monde written by David Larousserie and entitled “Variable Geometry Scientific Integrity”, indicated a feeling of unease about the publication of an open anonymous letter on the Sauvons l’université! website, calling into question our country’s research institutions. It described as incompetent and dishonest the scientists charged by the CNRS and Sorbonne Université to investigate allegations of fraud made by the journalist Leonid Schneider (on his blog For Better Science) against the director of the CNRS Institute for Biological Sciences, Catherine Jessus. Following this, a petition appeared on scienceactive.net, calling for people to fight against accusations “backed up by anonymous individuals or sites”. Finally, some retorted that the group of experts charged by the CNRS and Sorbonne Université to do the investigation was itself anonymous. There is a sort of similarity between, on the one hand the CNRS and Sorbonne Université, and on the other, the blogs by Leonid Schneider and Sauvons l’université!, all using anonymity and accusing the others of the same thing.


We will not go into the content of the accusations here (i.e. the suspected fraud), but the notion of anonymity, hurled like a cannon ball into the adversaries faces. The adjective “anonymous” describes something as having no assignable author, whose provenance cannot be identified. In this sense, the anonymisation of personal data aims at preventing a link being made between the data and the person who generated them; and the source of an anonymous letter, willingly masked, cannot be identified. The open letter that appeared on the Sauvons l’université website justifies the anonymity of its authors by the risk of reprisals they run if recognised by the institution. The document denounces attacks on scientific integrity; by doing so, it is exposing itself to an accusation that obviously generates considerable hostility.


Does the same apply to the group of experts appointed by the CNRS and Sorbonne Université? Not at all. On the one hand, the members of this committee are not denouncing, defending or judging anything. They are seriously investigating accusations made against a scientist and offering a detailed opinion as to their validity. On the other hand, these people have been appointed by institutions that know them and recognise their probity, their competency and the absence of conflict of interest. Here, it is not a question of anonymity but of confidentiality, as well-identified organisations are acting as guarantors. The essential thing is the presence of a trusted third party, here the combination of the CNRS and Sorbonne Université, which connect the authors to the information transmitted in the case of confidentiality, a connection that anonymity seeks to break.


Once this distinction is made, one may ask which is preferable: anonymity, confidentiality or transparency. Nowadays, transparency is often credited with many virtues. However, while we might agree on the harm caused by opacity, total transparency can also be harmful when individuals are concerned. Whether it be to assess scientists for a promotion, research projects for funding or breaches of scientific integrity, exposing the experts publicly would place them in a delicate position with regards to people who must know them. As a result, they would not be able to act freely. Anonymity however, is not desirable either, as nothing would guarantee the competence, probity or partiality of those accusing, judging and denouncing everything, without having to answer to their allegations. Confidentiality on the other hand (the etymology of the word comes from confidence), is a satisfactory compromise, as long as the institutional trusted third party remains credible.

 

NOTE TO READERS

As the author has CNRS-approved responsibility and his laboratory is part of Sorbonne Université, for ethical reasons, La Recherche has asked him to cite his interests in the organisations mentioned in the text: “The CNRS ethics committee (Comets) that I chair is a think tank that is independent of the management of the organisation. In accordance with its articles of association, it does not deal with specific cases nor especially with scientific integrity or misdemeanours of any kind. As a result, it has never had to rule on the cases mentioned in this chronicle.”

 

 

> AUTHOR

 

Jean-Gabriel Ganascia

Artificial intelligence researcher

Jean-Gabriel Ganascia  is  a professor of IT at the Pierre-et-Marie-Curie University (Paris 6). He chairs the CNRS ethical committee (Comets).

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