When Teddy Goetz—a fourth-year medical student at Columbia University—applied to residency programs in October 2020, he felt as though he had no choice but to out himself as transgender. “I had to put my birth name all over my application because of my publications, and that was really upsetting,” he says. He changed his legal name to Teddy last year. But many of his papers listed him using his birth name.
Before submitting his applications, Goetz had contacted every journal he’d published in—14 in total—to request they change his name. Two journals offered to change his name and issue a correction notice. Many others didn’t have a policy to deal with author name changes and refused to change his name without one. It was disheartening, but he continued to press the journals to accommodate his request. Now, his name is changed or in the process of being changed on all but one of his publications. “It’s been a very long process and involves a lot of … labor, time, energy, attention, massive spreadsheets,” he says. But it’s worth it. “My legacy should not be the name that isn’t mine; the legacy should be mine.”
Goetz is part of an informal group of transgender scientists who have been pushing for changes to the scientific publishing industry to make it more inclusive—not only for trans scientists, but also for others who change their names midcareer, for instance because of a change in marital status or religion. Over the past 6 months, they’ve seen marked progress: Many scientific publishers—including the American Chemical Society (ACS), the Royal Society of Chemistry, PLOS, Wiley, and AAAS—established policies that make it easier for authors to change their first or last name on published papers. (AAAS is the publisher of Science Careers.) Springer Nature, which publishes more than 2500 journals, expects to announce a new name change policy “in the near future,” according to a statement emailed to Science Careers.
The new policies allow authors to change their names without public notification of any kind. That marks a break from previous practices, which generally either didn’t allow for a name change or required a correction notice and co-author approval if a change was made. “Previously, there had been a prevailing attitude ‘what’s published is published,’” says Lisa Pecher, an associate editor at Angewandte Chemie who worked on Wiley’s name change policy. But it’s important to accommodate authors who change their names, adds Pecher, who is transgender. The policy shift “puts the power over who to share this sensitive information with back into the hands of the author, where it belongs.”
Many journals view their policies as a work in progress and are continuing to engage in discussions about how to implement the changes. For instance, it’s not clear how publishers will work together to update the reference lists of previously published papers. “It can’t be something that one publisher tackles all by themselves,” says Jessica Rucker, the director of global editorial operations at ACS, which is actively working on how to deal with citations.
Still, it’s clear that “the consensus is shifting—the publishing world has taken notice of the fact that this is an area that they have fallen down on,” says Theresa Tanenbaum, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, who is transgender and worked with the Association for Computing Machinery to update their name change policy in 2019. Tanenbaum says discreet name changes are particularly important for trans scientists, who may be subject to discrimination, violence, and persecution. It’s not a frivolous issue, she says; it’s a matter of “maintaining the livelihood and safety and privacy of a vulnerable population.”
The changes will also likely benefit other groups, such as people who grapple with name changes because of marriage and divorce. “I didn’t change my name when I got married, not because I thought I was ever going to divorce my husband,” says Susan Morrissey, ACS’s director of communications. “I had already published, so I wanted to keep that record.” With the new name change policies, Morrissey wonders whether others in similar situations might feel freer to make a decision that’s right for themselves and their family—rather than one that revolves around their publication record. “My kids’ lives would be a lot easier if I had [changed my last name],” she says.
Even with inclusive name change policies, the process of requesting changes on all prior publications is still daunting for scientists who are far along in their careers. Tanenbaum, for instance, published 83 papers that have collectively been cited thousands of times before she transitioned and changed her name in 2019—and it’s been a massive undertaking to correct the record. Some scientists would like to see publishers move toward an even larger-scale change: using a number, such as an ORCID identifier, as the primary digital identifier for an author rather than a name. That way, authors could change their name in one central place—ORCID’s website, for instance—and their name would repopulate everywhere it appears in author lists.
The publishing industry really needs to ask, “What would an entire overhaul look like?” says Irving Rettig, a Ph.D. student at Portland State University who—through a tweet—jump-started discussions at ACS to revise their name change policy. He’s happy with ACS’s new policy and was the first scientist to use it himself, but Rettig still considers it a “Band-Aid” approach. “The problem is that your academic record is tied to a name, and the assumption that a name is an unchanging object is incorrect.”
“If it were common in our society for men to change their names at marriage, this would have been solved decades ago,” says Tanenbaum, who is part of a working group on the topic formed by the Committee on Publication Ethics. “I think it’s reflective of a publishing system that has been historically mired in patriarchal values that center men’s experiences and not women’s. … It’s long past time that we do something about it.”