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I was looking at this question about a 17-year-old Ph.D. student in astrophysics, and I was struck by the potential for identifying this student (if it's a real scenario, which I don't for a second believe, but that's another topic). The number of current 17-year-old astrophysics Ph.D. students is minuscule, which makes this description extraordinarily specific. It may not uniquely identify the student, but it probably comes close. What makes it problematic is that the question was supposedly posted by the student's advisor, not the student, so there's no reason to think the student would be OK with being publicly identified.

If the classmates of such a student notice this question, they will surely wonder whether it's the same student, which could be awkward. Furthermore, one particular 17-year-old astrophysics Ph.D. student has recently been in the news for allegations of plagiarism, which makes this question sound like a sly reference to that case.

Do we have a formal policy on this issue? How should it be handled?

I'd propose deleting questions that include this level of identifying detail for third parties, to avoid embarrassing the people involved. (We could make an exception for cases in which the identifying detail is crucial for the question and no awkward or embarrassing material is revealed beyond what has already been widely circulated.)

There are at least two risks here:

  1. Accidentally identifying third parties, for example if an advisor posts a question about a foolish or eccentric thing that an identifiable student has done.

  2. Deliberately posting misinformation designed to embarrass someone by making it appear that information is leaking about an identifiable third party.

Either way, I find it problematic. (By contrast, people are of course welcome to post whatever information they feel is appropriate about themselves.)

  • Is the idea that what is problematic here is that the identifying details concern someone else? – Pete L. Clark Dec 7 '15 at 6:17
  • @PeteL.Clark I'd think so. If I say something embarrassing about myself, I know what it is coming and what I am OK with sharing; but a third party doesn't have that privilege. – Davidmh Dec 7 '15 at 13:19
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    In order to save the question, the details of the field and age can be redacted, and replaced by "unusually young PhD student in the natural sciences". – Davidmh Dec 7 '15 at 13:19
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    Question: even if the question is edited, what's to stop someone from seeing the original question (and the identifying information)? Or can that be stripped from the question by a moderator, and I'm just not aware of that power? – tonysdg Dec 7 '15 at 19:03
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    @tonysdg: Moderators can request a deletion of old versions of a post from Stack Exchange. It’s some work, but it’s possible. – Wrzlprmft Dec 8 '15 at 8:12
  • For the particular question you cited, it looks bogus anyway. Do you have any other examples? – aparente001 Dec 10 '15 at 4:40
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Identifying information isn't viewed as a problem here in its own right, and we don't take steps to ensure anonymity of the questioner. If a given user wishes to remain anonymous, the burden of anonymity is left to them.

That said, we've had a very small number of questions here where the actual text of the question had to potential to cause significant damage to the questioner. As I recall, In those situations, we left comments on the question asking whether they wish to have the question anonymized, and if they didn't reply within a few days we anonymized the question for them. I can recall two situations like that and both were handled individually.


Regarding answers potentially identifying someone else, that can take a number of forms. We've had some odd questions calling out professors for being jerks, TAs for being clueless, lab members for being childish, etc. Some of those contained uncomfortable amounts of information regarding the university, course, lab group, etc. In most cases, the identifying information ends up being edited out by other users, as in almost all cases that information would lead to the question being closed as "too localized." I recommend that approach for the general case.

In this instance, we have the rare case where the question itself is identifying due to its unique nature. My stance here is that the question be allowed to stand, for two reasons:

  1. The question is in no way damaging to the individual. It's plainly stated as hearsay, which means that it's essentially a fictitious question asked out of simple curiosity. The potential for harm is very minimal.
  2. The question is interesting in its own right, and lends interesting insight into Academia even without knowing who the individual is.

That's my take, at least.

  • I'm talking about identifying information for third parties. I.e., it's reasonable for someone to identify themselves and describe their problem, even if it's a potentially embarrassing problem, but it's not reasonable for someone to identify their student and describe the student's problem (especially if it makes the student look eccentric or foolish). I'll edit to clarify. – Anonymous Mathematician Dec 7 '15 at 18:18
  • Ah, I'm sorry, I see that now. Geez, I'm off my game today. Let me update my answer. – eykanal Dec 7 '15 at 18:26
  • No problem. I realized looking back that my question didn't make this clear at all (so the only way to see what I meant was to examine the original question). I've edited it to reflect this issue. Thanks! – Anonymous Mathematician Dec 7 '15 at 18:29
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    Its plainly stated as hearsay – Just being curious: What indictaions do you have for this? – Wrzlprmft Dec 8 '15 at 8:17
  • @Wrzlprmft - I probably used the wrong term. What I meant was that the advisor conveying his impressions of what the student said to him, which may or may not be true. I personally view that as nothing more than pure fiction, but hearsay may be too strong a phrase for that. – eykanal Dec 8 '15 at 15:56
  • @Wrzlprmft to any reader it is hearsay anyway; no one knows if the poster is actually who he claims to be. – Davidmh Dec 15 '15 at 12:28
  • @Davidmh: Sure, but that’s something other than stated as hearsay. The latter implies to me something like a post starting with: “I heard that the following happened:” – Wrzlprmft Dec 15 '15 at 12:38

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