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A vision for a more trans-inclusive publishing world: guest article

High level principles for name changes in publishing

Transgender, non-binary, and/or gender diverse—here shortened to “trans”—authors seeking to receive full credit for their work face unique challenges and risks. Trans people do not receive the same legal protections against discrimination as cisgender people worldwide; they are subject to significant risk of discrimination, harassment, and violence; and many experience a particular form of personal trauma connected to their pre-transition identities that makes them especially vulnerable within the academic community. One significant source of epistemic labor, risk, and trauma for transgender authors, is the continued circulation of their previous name [1]. In this article, we present five high level principles for trans-inclusive name changes in academic publishing and consider the implications of such a paradigm shift within the scholarly world [2]

Changing a name in a scholarly publication currently requires significant time and effort from all parties. An author seeking a name change typically must persuade the publishers of their work to grant them one: a process that is heterogeneous, complicated, fraught, expensive, and time consuming. Similarly, a publisher seeking to implement a name change request must reconcile the needs of authors in their community with their obligations to the scholarly and/or legal record, as well as the lack of an established infrastructure through which to expediently find and correct instances of the scholar’s name within their records. 

Unlike cisgender authors, trans individuals must shoulder the compulsory labor of negotiating for their basic human dignity on top of the complex and important research, teaching, mentoring, service, and other forms of labor that support their career. Trans authors have to argue for the right to be properly credited for their scholarship with decision makers who often neither understand nor care about the specific vulnerabilities they endure. Current practices in publishing make the task of correcting the scholarly record to reflect the identity of trans authors difficult, time consuming, expensive, uncertain, and emotionally fraught. It requires some of the most vulnerable members of the scholarly community to undertake significant personal labor, to expose themselves to ridicule and discrimination, and to have to repeatedly negotiate sensitive and private issues of personal identity with editorial boards, publishers, co-authors, citing authors, and other parties who have no real stake in the situation. The alternative is that many trans authors instead choose to abandon their previous scholarship, which produces a break in the scholarly record that harms our community by decoupling entire bodies of work from their creators.

As trans people are uniquely vulnerable to discrimination and violence directly related to the disclosure of their gender identities, we are specifically addressing the needs of this community here. However, we recognize that such policies have wide ranging benefits to a broader population of scholars who might seek to change their names for a diversity of reasons including (but not limited to) marriage, divorce, religious conversion, a need to escape abuse or harassment, or a desire to escape social and cultural stigma. The five guiding principles we articulate set a high standard for the publishing world: one which prioritizes the privacy, security, and safety of some of its most vulnerable contributors.

Some of these suggestions may be more or less difficult to implement, but there is critical and practical value in clearly articulating our values and ideals for a more just and inclusive publishing environment. We write these principles with an intent of reducing the epistemic and emotional labor of transgender scholars, and to recommend community-derived best practices for publishers and editors seeking to update their processes and procedures. This document focuses specifically on policies and practices at a high level. While all of the authors of this article have direct experience with the “nuts and bolts” of implementing such policies within our various disciplines, our goal here is to provide ethical touchstones against which such processes may be measured, not to prescribe specific bureaucratic or infrastructural processes. 

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Five guiding principles and best practices

1. Accessibility

Name changes should be available to authors upon request without legal documentation, unnecessary barriers, burdens, or labor placed upon the author making the request.

Many publishers struggle with the extent to which such a policy should require “proof” from the requesting author, and what the burden of proof should be. Publishers raise the concern that such a policy might be exploited and allow bad actors to engage in unethical or fraudulent behavior. Such fears are not based in evidence or precedent. 

Publishers often seek guidance on whether or not an author needs to prove that their name change is “legal” before issuing a correction. In a world where legal name changes were universally accessible, expedient, and affordable, such a measure would make sense. Unfortunately, trans people worldwide face a mayhem of different legal regimes that govern their identity. In many states and countries it is simply not permitted for a trans person to change their name at all. In other places, name changes are not permitted until the person has undergone invasive and expensive surgical procedures. In all cases, legal name change processes are slow, bureaucratic, costly, and inaccessible to many trans people for reasons outside of their control. Consequently, requiring legal proof of a name change establishes an unreasonable bar that excludes the most vulnerable members of the community from remedy. 

From a practice and implementation standpoint, this principle reduces the overall labor involved in a name change for everyone involved.

2. Comprehensiveness

Name changes should remove all instances of an author's previous name from the records maintained and disseminated by the publisher.

Due to the aforementioned risks of disclosure, publishers must take care to not retain public facing records of the author’s previous name in any venue. This includes, but is not limited to, metadata, archival digital documents authored by requesting author as well as works citing them, tables of content, acknowledgments, and other paratextual materials, website URLs, search engines, database entries, in text citations, and bibliographic entries. 

In many ways, this principle is one of the most difficult to implement, due in part to a lack of existing infrastructures for such changes. 

Names pervade our digital infrastructures, in often unanticipatable ways. Each of the authors of this document has had to contend with the “digital ghost” of their previous identity to varying degrees, and so the practical difficulties of a comprehensive name change loom large in our experience. Thus we recommend this as an ideal to aspire to, with the understanding that (in the absence of a radical change to the infrastructures of digital record keeping and publishing) the most we can aspire to is a “good faith” attempt at comprehensiveness.

3. Invisibility

Name changes should not draw attention to the gender identity of an author, nor create a clear juxtaposition between the current name and the previous name.

Transgender people face significant discrimination, bias, and precarity as a consequence of their gender identity. Published works associated with a trans person’s previous name represent a direct threat to the safety and wellbeing of trans people, potentially exposing them to harm, including online harassment, employment discrimination, in-person assault, and even state sanctioned incarceration and violence in some regions. In the best of circumstances, such disclosures rob the transgender person of their right to privacy and the right to decide the time and place to “come out” to strangers in their professional life. Any publisher who implements a process for trans authors to change their name should work to minimize the disclosure risk to the requesting scholar. This includes foregoing traditional announcements and notices typically associated with updates, corrections, retractions, and errata, both in metadata structures and on changed documents.

We recognize the tension between the need to protect the privacy of authors who have changed their name and the desire to prevent recurrence and dissemination of their previous (obsolete) name. Without an announcement or notice of correction, the chances of third parties updating the name in their records drops substantially. This is a place where new infrastructures are needed, as current publishing and dissemination systems are not designed to push discrete updates of names to third parties.

4. Expediency and simplicity

Name changes should be implemented in a timely manner, and with a minimum of bureaucratic overhead.

The longer an incorrect name persists within the published record, the larger the potential burden to the publisher to correct that name. Erroneous citations will continue to accrue as new people are discovering and indexing the work under the incorrect name. Publishers should act swiftly to correct names as soon as they are made aware of the need for change. Publishers should also provide a clear and simple centralized path to changing an author’s name in order to minimize the labor of “coming out” that the author must undertake in order to seek this correction.

In our experience, even publishers seeking to provide relief to authors who have requested a name change often fail on this point, due to a lack of staff resources, a lack of clear internal processes, and inflexible digital systems. We see a critical need to improve how we design software platforms, document standards, and editorial practices for digital publishing to include support for name changes as a standard feature.

5. Recurrence and maintenance

Publishers should regularly audit and correct new instances of changed names in order to prevent ongoing dissemination of incorrect information

Due to the citation driven nature of academic publishing, a single, swift, silent, comprehensive effort to correct a trans author's name is insufficient to prevent inadvertent disclosure and the associated risks and arms it carries. Once a name change has been implemented, publishers should be prepared for some degree of ongoing maintenance of their records to remove recurrences of the previous name.

This, more than any other principle we have laid out, has the potential to entail the publisher and/or the requesting author into an unsustainable amount of ongoing labor, at least with our current infrastructures and practices. We take this challenge, and those described above, as a starting place for rethinking how academic publishing can take the lead on implementing and adopting new systems identity infrastructures.

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Reality check

Efforts to correct the digital records of transgender authors are inevitably going to be only partially comprehensive as long as print records continue to exist. However, the existence of print should not prevent us from seeking to correct the record for the vast majority of people who access and consume knowledge digitally. Likewise, even the most comprehensive change of a publisher’s records is unlikely to protect a trans author from having their privacy violated by someone dedicated to discovering their previous name. This does not mean that publishers shouldn’t make all efforts to protect the privacy of their authors, to minimize or eliminate the role that they play in casually or inadvertently disseminating their previous names, or otherwise revealing their gender identity to all readers. Half measures can cause more harm than no change at all. A publisher who retains public facing versions of a dead name, especially in places where it can be juxtaposed against the correct name of a trans person, is complicit in every violation and harm that the trans person (and, by extension, the scholarly community) suffers from this thoughtless disclosure.

At the same time, we have learned through experience that even the best intentioned policies are inadequate if they are not resourced properly. It is not enough to adopt a policy that allows for trans authors to change their names if the journal or publisher is unwilling to allocate the time and resources to implement that policy. This includes identifying all internal documents and digital systems where author names are preserved and disseminated; establishing an internal workflow for updating and correcting those documents; training staff on how to implement this workflow; allocating adequate time for them to actually respond to requests in a timely manner; creating a single point-of-contact for name changes; training that point-of-contact in trans-inclusive customer service practices; and standardizing communication practices with authors to update them on the status of their name change request. Failure to properly enact such steps makes even the most inclusive name change policy little more than performative allyship, and doing so allows the publisher or journal to claim that the privacy, safety, and wellbeing of trans authors in their community are being respected, while still maintaining a transphobic status quo that causes ongoing harm to members of one of the most vulnerable minorities.

A call for better “identity infrastructures” in academic publishing

The status quo that causes this harm to authors who change their names is the product of infrastructures and records that maintain, propagate, and enforce the idea that our social identities are fixed and unchangeable. While the needs and vulnerabilities of transgender authors foreground the harm that devolves from this rigid idea about identity, one need look no further than the lack of accommodation for people who change their names due to marriage, divorce, or religious conversion to see how baseless this rigidity is. It is a vestigial and obsolete limitation that digital publishing has inherited from the print publishing world. The change from print to digital dominance has taken place only within the last 30 years. It is only possible and worthwhile to consider changing published works to correct the names of transgender authors because the vast majority of scholarship is now primarily digital. The difficulty in implementing name change policies highlights an artificial inadequacy of our current digital platforms that is neither intrinsic to them nor inevitable. 

Publication and dissemination platforms and technologies have always traveled along a trajectory from static to dynamic. From illuminated manuscripts, to fixed type printing, to moveable type, to word processing, to networked digital distribution, the historical curve of publishing has always evolved away from rigidity and towards flexibility. The next evolution of the published document needs to embrace the dynamics of our technological platforms, while acknowledging the long ignored inequalities in how identities and names are policed by publishers. We contend that individuals—not publishers—should be the sole authority over their social identity, as often manifested by the name that they are known by.

Currently, our society relies on names when attributing authorship to any given individual, but names are imprecise, subject to gendered baggage, culturally freighted, and (as we have seen here) changeable. The problem lies with making the name the primary unit of attribution. Systems like ORCID demonstrate the value of unique, unchanging, author identifiers that are distinct from their names. ORCIDs allow authors to rely on a gender neutral, alphanumeric designator as the primary unit of attribution. The “name” of the author is irrelevant, as long as their identity is consistently maintained via this digital record [3]

The name displayed on a published work has social value, but it should not serve an indexical function. The infrastructures by which we index, attribute, cite, and track scholarship currently rely on names, not because names are the best way to identify an author (or even a particularly good tool for this job) but because they evolved from a tradition of print publishing. The future of publishing is one that must make this distinction between the social identifier of an individual (the name) and the indexical unit that uniquely identifies that individual. Moving away from names as units of attribution would allow for far more robust analytics around citation and impact. It would eliminate confusion, reduce wasted effort, and produce a more unified and coherent archive of scholarship. And, for trans scholars and any other who change their social identity, this distinction would allow publishers to implement dynamic infrastructures whereby authors could update their “display name” in a centralized database, and see that change propagate through their entire scholarly ecosystem. Such a radical change to the publishing world may seem unthinkable right now, but the shift away from print to digital happened in only a few decades. We believe such a change is necessary and inevitable: already the consensus within the publishing world is shifting to recognize the longstanding need to accommodate changes to the names of authors. As more and more people come to acknowledge that many people’s social identity changes over the course of their life, there will be an increased expectation that these evolutions-of-self be accommodated by a robust, well resourced, low effort process.

[1] We outline these risks in detail in a white paper

[2] While this document is written with name changes in mind, many trans people also seek to change their pronouns: a change for which many of these same principles and ideas apply.

[3] Such concepts are not new. For example, “Mark Twain” and “Samuel Langhorne Clemens” were successfully linked in paper records and library catalogues for over a century prior to the initiation of digital presses. Updating trans authors names per request does not pose any novel indexing challenge, and can and should be seamlessly rectified in this digital age. 

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Author bios

Theresa Jean Tanenbaum (“Tess”)

Theresa Tanenbaum is an Assistant Professor at the University of California in the Department of Informatics, where she is the founder of the Transformative Play Lab. Dr Tanenbaum’s work is engaged with issues of gender, identity, and narrative. Dr Tanenbaum’s work is playful, provocative, and interdisciplinary, frequently straddling the line between art, design, advocacy, and research. She helped draft the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) name change policy: the first such policy to be formally adopted by a major publisher. Her article in Nature advocating for more trans inclusive name change policies in academic publishing has been cited by multiple publishers who have adopted similar policies. 

Irving Rettig

Irving D Rettig is a 5th year chemistry PhD candidate at Portland State University (PSU) researching light-to-chemical energy conversion, specifically singlet oxygen mediated aerobic oxidation photocatalysis in tellurium-containing rhodamine derivatives. In addition to working with name change policies, he has pushed for additional trans inclusive policies and practices within the American Chemical Society (ACS), co-created an antiracism workshop series within the chemistry department at PSU, and serves on the PSU Women in STEM organizing committee.

H Michael Schwartz

H Michael Schwartz is an Organizational Behavior PhD student at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management. Their research interests center around transgender experiences in organizations, allyship, and positive psychology, while they most like to teach leader/self development, practical positive psychology, and organizational development.

BM Watson

Brian M Watson (@brimwats) is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia's School of Information focusing on equitable cataloging in galleries, archives, museums, and special collections. They are the Director of HistSex.com, an open access resource for the history of sexuality, and contribute the Homosaurus LGBTQ linked data vocabulary. Additionally, they serve as the Archivist-Historian of the Consensual Nonmonogamy Taskforce of the APA.

Teddy G Goetz

Teddy G Goetz (he/him or they/them) is a fourth year medical student at Columbia University, College of Physicians and Surgeons. Previously, he studied biochemistry and gender studies at Yale, conducting research on a wide spectrum of biologically and socially determined aspects of gender based health disparities, including earning his MS developing the first animal model of transgender hormone therapy. His interests include psychiatry, LGBTQ health, women’s health, narrative medicine, and physician advocacy. More about his work can be found at teddygoetz.com.

Katta Spiel

Katta Spiel is an FWF Hertha-Firnberg scholar at the HCI Group of TU Wien, where they work marginalised bodies in Interaction Design. They also have received the SIGCHI 2020 Outstanding Dissertation Award for their work on evaluating Co-Design with autistic children.

Mike Hill

Mike Hill (he/him/his) is a professor of mathematics at UCLA. A theoretical mathematician, his primary research studies questions in topology using techniques from algebra. He is a cofounder of Spectra: the association for LGBT mathematicians, and he continues to serve on the board there.

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