The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Does Formal Certification Increase Credibility?

To those not following our discussion, PalMD and I (and a couple of pseudonymous women bloggers) will be leading a discussion session on the needs and justification for anonymity or pseudonymity in blogging at the upcoming ScienceOnline'09 conference (16-18 Jan 2009 in RTP, NC, USA). I've also been toying with the pros and cons of personally uncloaking and have been surprised that most readers and commenters don't really care whether I am Abel or [RealName].

The past posts in this series have focused on whether readers trust pseudonymous bloggers - "trust" is a powerful word that I now realize is asking more than I intended (although it is a fabulous, critically-acclaimed but oft-overlooked 1981 album by Elvis Costello). In refining the question, I want to know what constitutes trust in the information bloggers provide. Becca had a very nice comment that categorized the degrees of trust she has for me based on the topic being addressed.

Today, I want to ask if any external evaluations, certification systems, or peer recommendations that might cause readers to place more faith in the objective authority of certain pseudonymous bloggers. At one end of the spectrum, here is a formal certification I applied for in November and was proud receive back in February:

We comply with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health
verify here.

The Health on the Net (HON) Foundation is an independent Swiss group founded to evaluate and certify the objectivity of medical information provided on the web. An overview of their eight criteria are here and a brief description of their mission is to provide "Quality & Trustworthiness of the Medical & Health Web." I became aware of it shortly after the foundation was established in 1995-1996 and I promoted HON certification as a guide to my students and the general public who were using the Web to seek out medical information.

After we started Terra Sigillata, I saw that some medbloggers had received HON certification. So last November I decided to see if I could qualify for HON certification as a pseudonymous blogger. The application process required disclosure of my full name and degrees and the blog had to be reviewed by actual members of the HON Foundation in Geneva for objectivity. The most problematic issue for me was the advertising that Seed Media Group puts in the right sidebar and above the masthead. I had to explain that while Seed offers ScienceBloggers some compensation based on pageviews, and that those funds may be derived from their ad income, we have complete editorial authority over our content. Moreover, I have Seed directly contribute my pittance of compensation directly to a local cancer patient support group to relieve me of any tax or outside income regulations.

The HON Foundation also required a more extensive disclaimer about me and my qualifications, the intended audience for the blog, and the advertising policy. With all that squared away, little ol' Terra Sigillata was granted HONcode certification on 6 Feb 2008 (certification here, post here).

In retrospect, this seems like overkill in proving my authority and objectivity of medical and pharmaceutical topics and I recognize that HONcode certification would not be applicable to some of the blogs in my blogroll to the left. However, I have to say that I'm kind of proud of it even though I'm not sure it influences the perceptions of you, the dear, well-informed, intelligent, and good-looking readers of this blog. But that is a question below.

Can you think of any other semi-formal mechanisms by which blogger information quality, authority, or objectivity might be assessed? Attribution and links by other bloggers are certainly a sign of some degree of authority but, then again, a circle of science denialists repeatedly linking to one another might cause that metric to come under question. I know there are many whizbang Web 2.X gurus out there (i.e., not me) who could tell us the best way to interpret the significance of cross-linking, especially when several independent authorities find your content to be valuable enough to link in different contexts. But as I noted, this can be abused so much as to be meaningless.

So the questions for today's laboratory session are:

1. Does our HONcode certification give you any greater confidence in the quality of the content provided here? Have you ever even noticed that we are HON certified?

2. Can you think of any other semi-formal mechanisms by which blogger information quality, authority, or objectivity might be assessed?

You may answer in the space provided below. Do your own work.

Here are The Pseudonymity Laboratory Posts from us and others, thus far:

Terra Sigillata
The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Do you trust me?
The Pseudonymity Laboratory: Up from the Comments
The Pseudonymity Laboratory: PhysioProf Provides Slide Number One

Compatriots in Pseudonymity
Why should I trust you? - PalMD at denialism blog
Abel's Excellent Pseudonymity Inquiry - DrugMonkey
Pseudonymous Blogging Panel - PhysioProf
Blogging Anonymously - Kristjan Wager (Pro-Science)

(Please leave URLs of any of your own posts in the thread below if I can't find them or have otherwise overlooked them.).

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In thinking about whether I had an answer for 1), I arrived at my answer for 2).

The HON cert for TS produced a mild "Oh, that's cool" but no change in my appreciation for your blog. Now that I know what it is and that it was important to you, I suppose if I saw it on another blog with which I was not familiar it might help to increase their credibility with me. Maybe.

What I came to with this is that since I'd never heard of HON before it did not score as a 'credential' with me. So then I started thinking about where, when and what I accept credentials as influential on my trust/respect/whatever. In my professional life, I am influenced by people's credentials in large part by searching for their papers on PubMed and the like. I don't happen to be impressed by the journal titles but I am impressed by good quality papers and a sustained concentration in an area, particularly if it is in the area relevant to, say, the blogging topics. We learn a lot from a CV by authorship positions, collaborations, etc and I probably absorb these things almost by default. I can think of some situations where I would be influenced by evidence of funding- duration, source, continuity, etc.

It would be difficult for me to estimate how much such factors might play a role in the overall evaluation, appreciation or trust of a blog. For the most part, where I am aware of bloggers real world ID, the quality of the blog is very consistent with any impression I might get from publications or grant funding or the like. The numbers are just too small. One would have to have a large sample of bloggers who are out on one's first reading of their blog and ones who one discovers the real ID after becoming a consistent reader.

So with respect to mechanisms of establishing blog quality I think that to the extent such mechanisms tie into previously-established metrics, they will be reasonably successful. (At the cost of any drawbacks to such existing mechanisms) To the extent the blogosphere tries to establish new certifications, I think it is up against a steep curve to first establish the reputation of the certifying authority....

I saw your HONcode certification the day you first posted it, but I already trusted you on pharmacology/pharmacognosy and natural products because those are areas that I'm quite familiar with, and I'm generally in agreement with what you've written.

The only area where I'd take your comments with a grain of salt is on the subject of beer -- I'm one of those who really enjoys very hoppy ales. But then again, that's simply a matter of taste, not fact or policy. Chacun à son goût.

I forgot to give you my admittedly quite personal answer to your second question. For me, a very informal but influential indication of trustworthiness (on primary subject matter) is appearance of a blog's name on Janet's blogroll. (Doesn't everyone trust Janet?)

I think the "web of trust" idea (borrowed from PGP) is useful here. If people I already trust say good things about you, that will make me more likely to trust you.
This applies to something like HONcode as well, with a little bit more indirection: if I don't recognize the certification, it won't mean anything to me, but if I see it showing up on blogs I already trust (and not on ones I don't), that will give me clues about whether I should trust ones that I don't know but have the certification.

As far as bootstrapping goes, I have broad enough interests to have developed a pretty good bogon filter, and if you say things that interest me and don't trip the bogometer, I'm likely to start considering you a trustworthy source. This doesn't work perfectly if you switch between things I know well and things I know nothing about (how do I know you don't also know one thing well and know nothing about the other one?), but it's a good first-pass filter, and it can be refined by paying attention to how other people respond to what you say on various subjects.
(Of course, I wouldn't trust bloggers I don't know personally (pseudonymous or not) on important matters - that's what consulting (and paying) professionals is for. Blogs, the popular press, and similar sources are for background and general knowledge.)

(I think that's mostly an answer to question #2... as far as question #1, this is the only place I've seen the HONcode certification, and I hadn't noticed it until you pointed it out.)

I don't buy the value of cockamamie formal certification crapola. I'll make my own determination as to a pseudonymous blogger's credibility based on what she writes, not on the presence of some dumbass logo on the front page of her blog. All it does is create more work for the reader, because for the certification to be useful, the reader has to decide whether the certification is, itself, credible. Fuck it: cut out the middleman and just assess the blog directly.

short story. the spouse and i lend technical expertise to a certain very non-science community. after consistently demonstrating that we know what we're talking about, there was no need to document credentials. word from that username is solid advice. sure, we openly disclosed credentials, but for all anyone knew they could have been made up (just like anything else on the internet)- similar to the science blogging situation, if you ask me.

i don't think the issue is so much one of trust but of demonstrated consistency, reason and judgment. the fact that i'm developing an educational background in the same field probably lends me an upper hand in knowing what you're talking about when you blog about pharmacology and being able to make that call for myself. in terms of outside certification, then i start to wonder about who the certifying agency is, what's their agenda, etc. after all, there extremely few concrete sources of trust on the internets.