Cell recently received an unfamiliar request for advice about what it would do if a researcher had previously authored work in the journal, but since then, they’d gone through a gender transition and changed their name. They wanted to know if the publisher would adjust their previous article to reflect their chosen name rather than their birth name.
Normally, Cell would issue a correction to an author’s name if there was a mistake or it was incorrect at the time a study was published, but in this case, the name was correct at the time of publication. The journal’s editor in chief, John Pham, tells The Scientist in an email that the request “sparked an internal discussion,” so he reached out to Mika Tosca, a climate scientist at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who is transgender, for her input. Pham knew her because the two are slated to participate on a panel, Queer Diversity in STEM: Perspectives from the Community, tomorrow at 4:00 pm Eastern.
Tosca, who hasn’t run into the issue because publications from before her transition only cited her initials, which match her current name, says that allowing trans authors to change their names is a crucial way that journals can support trans scientists. “The biggest thing that [journals can] do with respect to trans people is to allow them to change their names without a cumbersome process,” says Tosca.
If they have publications under two different names, scientists can face discrimination, or if readers only see the body of work under one name, the scientist can appear less experienced than they really are. “Particularly this has potential to impact someone when job-hunting,” Savannah Garmon, a physicist at Osaka Prefecture University who worked on a committee to improve LGBT inclusivity at the American Physical Society (APS) from 2014–2016, tells The Scientist in an email. If a person’s CV includes all of their publications from before and after transition, it will “out” them as transgender, making them vulnerable to potential discrimination. “But if they try to avoid this by not including their publications under the previous name, they will appear less accomplished in their research,” Garmon adds.
Tosca encouraged Pham to grant the author’s request and to adopt a new policy to do so for transgender authors in the future. Cell Press has since updated its policy through internal reference documents. Pham says, “promoting diversity and Inclusion is one of Cell Press’s key priorities and we felt that this decision is in keeping with those broader goals. It also just seemed to us as though it was the right thing to do.” Now, if a scientist requests it, the journal will issue a correction and work with the author to ensure that they are comfortable with its wording.
This policy could have unintended consequences. Theresa Tanenbaum, a computer scientist at the University of California, Irvine, who is transgender, has been working to get her name changed on her old publications for more than a year. When she started reaching out to publications about changing her name on previous work, she says, “publishers were, by and large, unwilling to make any real changes to my published name. And that when they were, they would do so in ways that were really harmful.” For example, some journals were willing to list an erratum—an announcement explaining the correction and linking to the article. This type of correction, she says, “outs” the author to anyone reading.
Shortly after speaking with Pham, Tosca tweeted at the American Geophysical Union (AGU), a publisher she works with more often, writing, “If this policy hasn’t already been changed, I think it’s about time you also allowed trans authors to change their names on manuscripts that were published using their dead/birth-names. Follow @CellCellPress’s example. Happy to email privately with u as well.” In response, AGU acknowledged its current policy—requiring all authors to approve a correction and then issuing an erratum—would not be appropriate in the case of a trans individual’s name change. The publisher then invited Tosca’s input in creating a new policy.
Developing a policy may take time. Tanenbaum worked with a committee to draft a name-change policy for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the group with which she has the most published work, for more than a year. When her team’s proposal was sent to association members for public comments, scientists expressed concerns that changing a name without including an acknowledgement of the edit could harm the “sanctity of the historical record.” To address this, she suggested that journals can maintain records of the original publication and edits to share in the instance that it is required for, say, a legal case regarding intellectual property, but that these copies would not be public-facing.
While it’s unclear how many scientists the policies will affect, Tanenbaum says that after the ACM announced its name-change policy in November 2019, it received several dozen requests from scientists who wished to change their names on previous papers. Some might want to change their names for other reasons, such as marriage or to avoid an abuser. While ACM’s current policy does not limit the reasons for a name change, others might. When asked if the Cell Press policy would apply to individuals other than transgender scientists, Pham says “we think that trans authors are in a unique situation that merits this exception.”
Tanenbaum says a lot of pushback the team received reflects a “fundamental distrust” of trans scientists. “I’ve seen Orwell’s 1984 invoked multiple times to suggest that trans people are demanding some sort of criminal historic revisionism that will mislead the public about the origin of a work, even though it’s a trans person,” Tanenbaum says. “My position continues to be that I’m not trying to mislead people by changing my name. I want to make certain that people know that I’m the one that wrote the work. I want to have the work associated with me.”