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Anonymity as a Threat to Academic Freedom

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Academic Freedom in the European Context

Part of the book series: Palgrave Critical University Studies ((PCU))

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This chapter addresses the threat posed to academic freedom by the use of anonymous judgments in the governance of science. In fact, most of the procedures that affect the day-to-day existence in academia are based on judgments or opinions expressed behind the cloak of anonymity. The latter has developed into a default rule whenever an assessment is required to inform decisions and actions in today’s academic system. Based on a thorough reading of Immanuel Kant the author shows how anonymous judgments violate the very nature and purpose of scientific dialogue and how anonymity operates as an instrument of control from inside the scientific dialogue and academic interchange. Its unquestioned adoption in the governance of science makes possible unprecedented, methodical, and systematic attacks to academic freedom.

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  1. 1.

    This is at least the practice in Italy. See the example discussed below, Sect. 4.

  2. 2.

    By “academic existence” I mean simply a form of human existence devoted to knowledge and education.

  3. 3.

    “[W]e can reduce all acts of understanding to judgments, so that understanding may be represented as the faculty of judging. For it is, according to what has been said above, a faculty of thought.” (Kant 1781 A 69, 1787 B 84; translation mine). To judge means to connect a predicate to a subject in the form “S is P.” The truth of the thought corresponds to the correctness of the judgment.

  4. 4.

    “[…] for unless the surveyor’s judgment were first seen to be in perfect agreement with the judgment of all the other talented men who are working diligently in this field, even mathematics would not be exempt from the fear of falling into error somewhere along the line” (p. 11 in Kant (1798) 1974).

  5. 5.

    “By ‘public use of one’s reason’ I mean that use which each individual, as a scholar, makes of it before the reading public. I call ‘private use’ that which the individual can make of his reason in a civic position that has been entrusted to him” (see p. 55 in Kant (1784) 1964; translation mine).

  6. 6.

    Isaac Newton famously paraphrased Aristotle’s dictum into: Amicus Plato amicus Aristoteles magis amica veritas (“Plato is my friend, Aristotle is my friend, but my greatest friend is truth”). The sentence appears as exergue to the set of notes known as Quæstiones quædam Philosophiæ (text available from The Newton Project by the University of Oxford, A discussion of the transition of the meaning of “friendship” and “truth” from the Greek (Aristotelian) to the Modern (Newtonian) period is beyond the scope of this chapter. It suffices here to note the contentious continuity of the reference to truth among the philosophical and scientific traditions.

  7. 7.

    In the United States, it is now a widespread practice to hold “undergraduate conferences” (scholarly conferences open only to undergraduate students). In the United Kingdom, every university department must now have its own Student Review, with much the same apparatus of scientific journals, including peer review (anonymous, of course), open to students only.

  8. 8.

    “Credit” is easily translated into numerical and thus evaluative terms (n citations = X value = position Y in the scholarly community).

  9. 9.

    Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 10: “Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him”.

  10. 10.

    Guidelines on the prosecutor’s role in applications for Witness Anonymity Orders available at

  11. 11.

    Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 3: “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person”.

  12. 12.

    In the History of the Common Law of England (1793), Sir Matthew Hale contrasted the English practice of taking evidence in public to the secrecy of the Spanish Inquisition. One of the reasons why public trials serve justice better than private or secret hearings is that “if the Judge be partial, his Partiality and Injustice will be evident to all By-standers” (cited at p. 28 in Nettheim 1984).

  13. 13.

    Famous examples in English literature include Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and Daniel Defoe. See Griffin (2003). Use of a pseudonym is not necessarily a sign of the desire to conceal one’s identity. There is none of this intention, for example, in the writings in which Kierkegaard uses the aliases “Climacus” and “Anti-Climacus”, or in Hölderlin’s so-called “tower poems”, which the poet signed as “Scardanelli” or “Salvator Rosa”.

  14. 14.

    For an overview of the AI systems currently used to “assist” peer-review, see Thelwall (2019). For an example of an AI system to evaluate “teaching performance” see Lieberman (2018).


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Correspondence to Maurizio Borghi .

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Borghi, M. (2022). Anonymity as a Threat to Academic Freedom. In: De Gennaro, I., Hofmeister, H., Lüfter, R. (eds) Academic Freedom in the European Context. Palgrave Critical University Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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