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Publishers facilitate name changes on past papers

17 September 2021

Trans scholars have pushed for updated policies that would allow for retroactive changes to author names.

Jupiter in near-UV.
Jupiter and one of its moons, Ganymede (upper left), in a Hubble Space Telescope near-UV image. The colors resemble the shades of blue, pink, and white in the transgender pride flag. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble; processing by Judy Schmidt, CC BY 2.0

A growing number of journal publishers are adopting policies to change authors’ names on past academic papers. The trend got a boost in late July when all 17 US Department of Energy laboratories and more than a dozen publishers—including the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, Springer Nature, and arXiv—announced that they had teamed up to streamline the process of implementing retroactive name changes.

The move to revise policies has been driven by trans scholars who want to have all their work, from before and after transitioning, under their new names. Academics who change their names due to marriage, divorce, religious, or other reasons may also benefit.

“I am very excited to see these changes,” says Elena Long, an assistant professor in nuclear physics at the University of New Hampshire. “For academics, our publications are our entire record—it’s how we get jobs, grants, and promotions.”

The issue of names has been a longtime focus of discussions among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender physicists, says Long, a trans woman who in 2009 cofounded the activist group lgbt+physicists and has been pushing for name-change policies for years. “A lot of us get attacked on a personal level, from inside our own families and in professional environments,” she says. “So there can be a lot of negative emotions tied to our previous name.”

The biggest hindrance, Long says, has been a lack of momentum. “We are starting to see some publications change their policies. It’s having a positive impact and creating a wave of others.”

Long was an author on the first-ever climate survey of LGBT physicists carried out by the American Physical Society, released in 2016. The survey report’s second recommendation was for APS “to improve electronic journal records and publication procedures so that transgender physicists who change their names will have their full publication records visible and, at the same time, will not be outed by their publication record.” (See Physics Today, March 2015, page 25, and the accompanying online interviews.)

With names left uncorrected, trans scholars face the choice of listing all their work on CVs and elsewhere under two different names and thereby outing themselves—which leaves them vulnerable to harassment—or abandoning work published under their so-called deadname, which shrinks their scholarly record. Both options risk discrimination in one way or another, notes Long.

Before they began adopting policies to implement name changes, some publishers did so on an ad hoc basis. Others refused. After Astronomy & Astrophysics declined to update an author’s name earlier this year, more than 900 astronomers signed an open letter protesting the decision and urging a policy change “in line with industry standards.”

Industry standards largely follow the recommendations of the nonprofit Committee on Publication Ethics. In 2019 COPE formed a working group to develop guidelines for retroactive name changes. A January 2021 editorial by working group members and colleagues details the guiding principles and best practices for retroactive name changes. Some publishers are waiting for COPE’s forthcoming guidelines to revise their name-change policies, but many are forging ahead on their own.

In June the Astronomy & Astrophysics board adopted a new policy for name changes. The journal now officially supports the emerging COPE guidelines. It also recommends that authors register with ORCID, a data platform that identifies journal articles independent of author name.

One stumbling block for publishers is philosophical, says APS executive editor Jessica Thomas. “A publisher’s remit is to not tamper with the scientific record,” she says. “We are guardians of what’s been published.” Many publishers, however, now acknowledge that changing an author’s name affects who said something, not what they said; the scientific record remains unchanged. Thomas agrees. “The main impetus is to support trans scholars,” she says. “They have a new identity, and they want to preserve their scientific record. How do you update a paper without calling out that you’ve made a change? How do you keep the number of people involved to a minimum?” Publishers are learning to “balance the practical parts of making the change with maintaining the privacy of the author. The adoption of new policies is a collective effort.”

Nicola Nugent, publishing manager for quality and ethics at the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry, says the RSC had internal support for updating its policies from the get-go. “For us, the challenges were on the technical side: How do you do this?” Much still needs to be resolved, she says. For example, the RSC makes changes both to PDF documents and online HTML. “We update metadata and push it out to indexers, but we can’t control what they do.” Nor, she adds, can the RSC adjust citations. “It’s all technical. We are hoping to support standardizing how these changes are done across the industry.”

Since adopting new policies earlier this year, RSC journals have corrected the names on 50 papers by 11 authors, Nugent says.

Under the agreement between the DOE labs and publishers, a lab representative—often a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer—will approach publishers on behalf of lab employees. That takes the burden off individual researchers, says Joerg Heber, research integrity officer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “We will let the publishers know what to change. Sometimes there may be a bio or photo. Pronouns may all need to be changed.” Besides journal articles, says Heber, indexing databases, arXiv preprints, and other materials may need to be revised.

The nuts and bolts of altering a name depend on the publishing system, says Heber. In some cases it’s easy, but other cases may require new typesetting, he says. “It’s not like publishing a new paper, but sometimes it’s close.” The consensus among those working on name-change policies is that the updates should be made across all public-facing digital versions of someone’s record. Publishers are implementing retroactive name changes at their own expense.

Statistics on trans authors do not exist, says Long. Judging from requests so far, publishers anticipate the demand for name changes to be small. But for trans scholars who do have their names corrected, she says, “it will be hugely impactful.”

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