Anonymous name change policies for a more inclusive publishing world

by | Feb 3, 2021

Following the tireless efforts of researchers and scholars, name change policies are becoming more prominent among scientific publishers, sparking hope for meaningful change.

Image credit: Kieran O’Brien

Transgender, non-binary, and/or gender diverse researchers and scholars face unique challenges as a result of a historical unwillingness to change outdated publishing practices.

Theresa Tanenbaum is an assistant professor in the Department of Informatics at UC Irvine and has been making waves within the publishing world for her advocacy work in pushing for more inclusive name change policies — work which she started in 2019.

“Having just come out, I was feeling very optimistic and excited about getting to share myself with the world,” she said in an interview with Advanced Science News. “One of the first things I did was look into updating my record, thinking, well publishers must have some provision for this; after all, plenty of people change their names after marriage or divorce. Why wouldn’t there be some provision in the publishing world to allow for this? And I discovered exactly how naïve I had been.”

Name changes are not uncommon — even outside of the trans community — and occur for a number of deeply personal reasons, many of which an individual may not want to disclose. Within the realm of academic publishing, outdated practices and rigid assumptions have made name changes on published bodies of work near impossible, creating problems for many who wish to update their scientific record.

Even though Tanenbaum was not the first member of faculty at her institution to transition, there was surprisingly no guidance or workflow in place to help her correct her record. She therefore began the daunting task of contacting publishers but says many did not even reply to her requests or came back citing concerns about upholding the integrity of the scientific record.

“Getting met with silence was a common response,” she said. “We [also] got a lot of fairly hostile reactions from people in the academic community who were concerned that we were performing some Orwellian historical revisionism. [This is] challenging because we’re not proposing a change to the scientific record or the substantive content in our work, we’re simply asking that our work credit us correctly. And yet, this is the most common objection.

“We [also] encountered a lot of objections grounded in inherent normativeness,” she continued, “where normal must be good and what is not normal must be bad, but it doesn’t stand up when you unpack consequences and risks.”

Tanenbaum is part of a group of roughly 34 other academic scholars from diverse subject areas, including chemistry, physics, ethics, data science, and many others, who are advocating for a universally adopted trans inclusive approach to name changes within publishing. They addressed some of these concerns in a recent white paper published on Medium.

“We’re trying to do this so people who follow us don’t have to start from scratch the way we did,” she said.

Tireless advocacy has led to growing change

The group’s immense efforts are beginning to bear fruit. New policies to support the anonymity of authors who wish to change their name on already-published research have been recently announced by a growing number of scientific publishers and journals including the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM), the American Chemical Society (ACS), Wiley, the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC), and Cell.

“I am still shocked that I have accomplished what I have accomplished,” said Tanenbaum. “I am by no means the first trans person in academia to try to solve this problem. […] When I started working with the ACM, there had already been an ongoing conversation around name changes for about a year before I arrived, but it had been stalled and the people who had started it had burnt out and left because they were tired of being treated poorly for asking for this change.

“It’s because I was willing to put in the time and effort and wasn’t willing to sit down and shut up that we made this progress,” she added.

This arduous process has catalyzed some drastic changes within the publishing world, not only creating more inclusive policies for vulnerable members of our community, but also visibility that Tanenbaum feels has been critical for both junior and senior members of the trans community who may be afraid to transition and come out because of the potential detrimental cost to their career.

“It is great news, and something that I have been hoping for a long time,” said Dr. Clara Barker, manager of the Centre for Applied Superconductivity at Oxford University and chair of the university’s LGBT+ advisory group. “For so long I have not wanted to share my papers with others not because I am not proud of my work and the results, but because my deadname is painful to revisit. Sharing papers with a previous name on has different implications for me.”

For many trans people — though not all — undergoing a name change is an important and affirming step in the transition process. Their previous name is referred to as a deadname, and for some, it can be a source of distress or even trauma.

My previous name is a source of trauma and I use the word trauma precisely and specifically here,” said Tanenbaum. “I spent 40 years trying and failing to pretend to be somebody for other people, to try to be somebody that other people thought I should be.”

Barker echoed these sentiments: “It is difficult for me to see that name and it does have a negative impact on my mental health. Sadly, we live in a world where transphobia exists and there are some out there who will use a deadname against a person specifically to cause hurt.”

The risks imposed by outdated policies

In the recent past and even still today changing one’s name on a research article after publication was not a straightforward process, and standard practices, such as issuing correction notices and notifying co-authors to the change, would draw attention to the fact.

“Sharing [my old papers] automatically ‘outs’ me as trans when people see [my deadname],” Barker added. “This automatically tells people that I am trans whether it is a CV or grant application. For those who don’t figure out why I have two names, it means an embarrassing and awkward conversation. From others it leads to overt prejudice.”

What are essentially public announcements of a person’s identity can create real danger for members of the trans community. “There are the risks of inadvertent casual disclosure of gender identity, which I consider to be private information for people,” said Tanenbaum. “We should be able choose when and how we disclose our status as trans people.

“Unfortunately, being trans makes you vulnerable, not through any inherent vulnerability that comes with transness, but because we live in a world that does not have any kind of robust protections for trans people,” she explained. “As a result, we are subject to much greater risk of harassment, discrimination, implicit bias, or loss of life, loss of job, loss of housing, and loss of health care.

“This isn’t just a vanity request that we make when we ask to change our names,” said added. “It is something that we see as essential to preserving our safety in a world that unfortunately has a lot of anti-trans sentiments.”

Correction notices are conventionally used to indicate when a scientific error has been made. Trans authors whose publications contain a swath of correction notices that are unrelated to their work face the risk that their work might be assumed to be plagiarized or less credible, containing inaccuracies or errors that need to be amended.

“This connects to transphobic stigmatization in which trans people are accused of not correctly representing themselves, where we try to fool people with our identities or be something we’re not,” said Tanenbaum. “All these things play into cycles of discrimination and trauma.”

Both Barker and Tanenbaum underscored the limitations in career opportunities that broken records might instigate as a whole body of published work can no longer be easily and accurately attributed to them.

“Prior to our transitions, we make contributions to the scientific record; we contribute knowledge,” said Tanenbaum. “For those of us who take new names, it becomes increasingly difficult to reconcile from a bibliometric or attribution standpoint the work that we did prior to our transitions and the work that we do under our current, correct identities. Our previous work is essentially incorrectly attributed at that point.”

“Trans and non-binary people have a choice,” said Barker. “Bury those old papers away or talk about them and know that some may use the [deadname] against you. Sadly, the scientific world is not beyond this type of behavior for all that some state that ‘science is about the science, not the scientist’.”

Putting power back into the hands of researchers

“Publishers can lead the way with this sort of change,” said Barker. “The same is true for learned societies and funding bodies it sets a standard by showing that the few dissenting voices are not the spokespeople for our field. Once some lead the way, it removes the barrier of ‘it cannot be done’ and makes it easier for others to follow suit. It may [seemingly] only affect a few people but positive changes like this are seen by a lot more people and it is a great step towards making STEM more equitable for all.”

As our concept of “normal” becomes more fluid and we become more sensitive to the needs of all members of the scientific community, our policies and professional practices need to match these cultural changes. Social names should not create schisms or breaks in the scientific record or create personal crises for any researcher.

“By accommodating one of the most vulnerable groups in our community, we create advantages for a much larger subset, for all of us,” said Tanenbaum. “After I started doing this work, I immediately started receiving messages from cisgender colleagues, mostly women, thanking me and sharing stories of having been denied a name change request for a maiden name or a name from a previous marriage that they no longer wanted to be associated with.

“The way our culture has construed names and gender, this disproportionately affects women because women more often change their names than men do. This is an obvious thing that should be available to all people, not just trans people, because there are plenty of situations where we change our names.

“Your professional reputation shouldn’t play a role in the decision of what name you go by, and yet, because we have a system that is so inflexible when it comes to identity, we have to deal with this legacy where the fluidity of people in the world is not reflected in the infrastructures in publishing that we rely on.”

Bringing policy into practice

Announcing a name change policy is one thing but implementing the change across dozens of papers for a single researcher requires that publishers put resources into re-framing current work practices and infrastructures. “[Publishers] need to train people to implement these policies when they’re invoked, otherwise the policy is just performative allyship or a way of showing that you’re inclusive without actually being able to make a correction within your records in a timely and effective manner,” said Tanenbaum.

Barker expressed this sentiment in saying, “I hope it is something that is practical to do, and not just something that is ‘technically possible’ – but this is a great step forward.”

Tanenbaum indicated that the work her group is undertaking will shift in the coming months from advocating for policies to advocating for creating tangible workflows for publishers to adopt. “We have a lot of great people and we’re working with publishers to develop some training videos, guidance documents, and other resources that we can make available so that they don’t need to start from scratch,” she said.

There are already some infrastructures in place that the group says have the potential to solve some of the more logistical problems for name changes. One example is putting more emphasis on ORCID IDs, which are unique digital identifiers. This doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of singular identity, but it lays some groundwork in removing a publisher’s need to validate an author’s identity.

“This needs to be something that publishers don’t concern themselves with because it’s not their job to say who I am, it’s mine. And that’s something that, increasingly, we’re seeing,” said Tanenbaum.

The overlooked cost of advocacy

While the progress made by Tanenbaum and her co-workers is monumental, this type of advocacy work puts a disproportionately heavy burden on the people carrying it out.

“We ask an immense amount of labor from the most vulnerable people in this situation,” said Tanenbaum. “There is a term for this, it’s called epistemic exploitation, which is when the secure majority population demands educational labor from that minority as a precondition for them to receive basic dignity and rights that the majority takes for granted.

“I cannot tell you the hours of labor and time I have put into trying to correct the record of my name in the last 18 months. Those are hours of time that I’m not spending teaching, doing the scholarship I’ve trained my whole life to do, not advising students, not spending time with my daughter and family. That’s time I don’t get back and it’s time I shouldn’t have to spend. It costs me and it costs the field.”

However, both Barker and Tanenbaum acknowledge the importance of visibility and representation as a means of supporting and elevating other vulnerable members of the community.

“I was going to leave STEM because I had never seen trans scientists in 13/14 years,” said Barker. “I didn’t think you could transition and stay in science. I have since spoken at so many events where at least one person has come to me, said that I am the first trans person they have seen speak in STEM and that they were thinking it was not possible to be a scientist and trans, and so were looking to leave as I had.

“I think sharing profiles of people can be really powerful,” she added. “Sharing the positive stories [and] showing that scientists are not all clones of each other. I was featured this month by Nature, and the amount of emails and tweets I have had is a real surprise.

“Visibility for race, gender, disability, etc. has a huge impact on who we retain in STEM and if we really want to solve some of the big questions we need to retain/attract the best not just the best of those who ‘fit in’ or have thick skin.”

Barker is actively involved within the LGBTQ+ community at Oxford where she works as chair for its advisory group and runs a youth group for LGBTI+ people, with a support group for their parents. “I share my story as a trans scientist who, for so long, believed that coming out as transgender would be career ending,” she writes in an Oxford profile.

Tanenbaum adds: “I made a choice to educate, to be visible, vulnerable, and vocal because I have this privilege of security in my position and the community of people around me. I’m doing this and have found a community to do this with me because I see that visibility is really critical to showing other people who may be afraid to transition and come out because the cost to their career could be devastating at least that’s what I thought before I transitioned.

“I will never benefit from this policy, my deadname will be known forever as a result of some of the work I’ve been doing on this and I will never be able to fade into obscurity, but hopefully somebody else can.

“This is about creating an environment where all scientists are able to conduct our scholarship to the best of our abilities and advance the project of human knowledge rather than having to focus on personal challenges and struggles. If we’re committed to this project of betterment, then this becomes an essential piece because it removes barriers to participation from a set of voices that have things to contribute.”

Dr. Clara Barker manages the Centre for Applied Superconductivity in the Materials Department at Oxford University. Twitter: @ClaraMBarker, YouTube channel: Science discussions

Theresa Tanenbaum is assistant professor in the Department of Informatics at the University of California Irvine

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