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I've been using academic.stackexchange quite enthusiastically during a rough postdoc devoid of mentorship. However, since I am a young researcher and since some of the questions I want to ask are rather sensitive, I am careful about what information I disclose, my field being one of them. My specific field is small, and it wouldn't take much effort to figure out who I am if I disclosed my field on top of the other personal clues I've given in my questions. I've noticed others doing the same, probably for similar reasons. However, some would-be-answerers rather aggressively insist that I disclose my field in order to answer my question. I'm wondering if there is some way around this-- i.e., how to guard my privacy while still offering enough information for an apt answer?

I've already hidden other SE groups that I'm a member of, and changed my username (but I doubt that would deter an eager detective; at some point SE was even storing old usernames publicly, and @ tags to old usernames remain). I completely understand that practices change from field to field (and even from subfield to subfield). Yet there are real privacy issues at stake. I'm even considering just deleting questions after I get a satisfying response, but I know that defies the point of SE.

This question is related, but does not deal with privacy.

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    I'm sorry you think the responses are aggressive. Generally they are trying to tailor an answer to your field or sub-field. There is a lot of variation in norms between fields, countries, etc. – Jon Custer Jun 14 at 16:41
  • I understand this completely. I just wish there were an easier way to be specific and also protect my privacy. After perusing related issues in meta.SE I'm realizing that hasn't been a major component in the development of SE sites. – artificial_moonlet Jun 14 at 18:42
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    When people are asking for your field they mean something like "applied math" or "history" rather than your narrow research interest. – Bryan Krause Jun 14 at 20:02
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    It looks like you're using the default avatar, which may be a privacy concern. Changing it may help. – Nat Jun 18 at 5:37
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Deleting a question after you get an answer is only possible if the answer does not have any upvotes. If you delete your question after getting an answer before it gets an upvote, that is a sure way to get a warning for a moderator and an eventual suspension.

The SE system allows you to create unregistered guest accounts and even multiple registered accounts (although you need to create new email addresses) for exactly this reason. All we ask is that if you create multiple accounts (registered or unregistered), is that the accounts never interact (i.e., no voting for yourself or leaving comments from one user on another users posts). The reputation you gain on these accounts will not be linked.

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However, some would-be-answerers rather aggressively insist that I disclose my field in order to answer my question. I'm wondering if there is some way around this-- i.e., how to guard my privacy while still offering enough information for an apt answer?

I haven’t checked the comments on your questions specifically, but my general impression of these comments (and my intention when I make them) is to allow us to give you a more helpful or to-the-point answer. If you accept that we cannot do this or sometimes your question is too broad, I see no problem with you omitting this information. To pre-emptively avoid these comments, I suggest that you explicitly state an your question that you will not name your field to avoid identifiability. Note that if you can give a broad hint to your field (STEM, humanities, etc.; experimental, theoretical), this can still be helpful at times.

I've already hidden other SE groups that I'm a member of

Note that this (sadly) does not make you completely unidentifiable. Everybody who knows where to look can get to your network profile from a hidden account. (But not vice versa.)

@ tags to old usernames remain

As StrongBad already noted, if you want to avoid detection via this, it is legitimate to use a sockpuppet to ask questions.

On this and more legitimate tricks to avoid detection, see this Q&A.

  • I think you mean "throwaway" (one use account) not "sock puppet" (account which appears to be a different person which you use to respond to your main account). – Noah Snyder Jun 18 at 20:34
  • @NoahSnyder: For whatever it’s worth, the sockpuppet is used for all kinds of secondary accounts on SE. A throwaway account would not necessarily be correct here, since it would be reasonable to re-use the second account for other “private” questions. – Wrzlprmft Jun 19 at 5:55
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SE offers a feature to disassociate your account from a question upon request, as mandated by the CC-BY-SA license it uses. However,

  • the procedure is rather cumbersome (you need to contact support, and I suppose your query is handled by a human);

  • it is not guaranteed that all references to your username will disappear: it takes a while for the username to be deleted from the database, and then it will still be present in older data dumps, in the internet archive, etc. Your question has already been linked to your username and to all your other questions on the SE network, and, as the old meme says, one does not simply delete something from the internet.

Hence it is best to post sensitive questions anonymously from the start, if it happens again in future. I agree that the user interface does not make it easy: a "post anonymously" button in the Ask Question page would help.

Now that you have already posted the question, a crude workaround to prevent further information leaks from your future activity on the SE network is: make a new Stack Exchange account and use that in future. I know it feels bad to lose all your reputation, but in the end it's just imaginary internet points.

  • Unfortunately, dissociating my account from a question and getting a new account do not solve the problem. The issue is comments made by other people to my username at the time. I've since contacted admin, who instructed me to flag each comment (thankfully there weren't many) and ask for changes or removal. – artificial_moonlet Jun 20 at 12:22
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The best precaution one can take is to dissociate SE Academia account from outer hints that would give away his identity. Also avoiding disclosing too much of specific details is the safe path. Nonetheless, you know what? My bet is that in most cases, the fear of being identified is almost complete paranoia. This website has apparently few users per institution, and the most active ones do not seem eager to investigate into other user's private details. Stalking isn't as trivial as it may seem to the common user, and plus, most academics are still unaware of the existence and power of such Q&A websites.

Unless you're really bashing a hot shot in some online-savvy department in the US or UK, I think you have little to fear. In case you work in a non-English speaking institution, you ought to just chill.

  • Well, if you've been stalked before, your paranoia might be founded. Also, this website is viewable even by non-users. It's quite common to reference an SE site without ever making an account. – artificial_moonlet Jul 5 at 8:56
  • I was, and I am stalked. I’ve been in the bitter side of internal enquires as a whistleblower. Colleagues will gossip, and that’s it. SE academia is as much open access as many papers I’ve written to nice journals, and Wikipedia entries I’ve created about them. No effect. I guess everyone really is looking at cute cat videos and on instagram. Reality is, most ‘bad guys’ are flat dumb & lazy and usually nobody truly cares about us. Give whoever you think hates you a few months of shunning and you’ll become part of the landscape again. Take minor precautions and chill out. – Scientist Jul 5 at 11:15
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Do not post questions that put you at risk.

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